Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Pasture vs Pasteur

As reported here and elsewhere, at 5:00 AM on Tuesday, April 20th, two agents from the US Food and Drug Administration, two deputy US Marshals, and one Pennsylvania State Trooper conducted what they described as a "routine inspection" at a small family farm in Lancaster County, PA. The farmer is under investigation for alleged violations of federal public health laws. Specifically he is accused of selling raw milk across state lines.

My purpose in this entry is not to discuss whether this farmer broke the law, but the general question of food safety, food choice, and the controversy over raw milk. Are government officials protecting public health, or are they protecting corporate interests who feel threatened by small independent farms?

On the surface it may look like a brave effort to protect the health of people from an extremely risky product. But there are no outbreaks of illness associated with this case or most of the cases in recent years where officials have raided small dairy farms.

If you investigate a little on the web, it will become immediately clear that there are different points of view. It may also look like a confusing morass of claims and counter-claims, so let's try to separate some of the issues and also look at some of the facts. Hopefully the truth can rise, like the cream on the milk, to the top.

The FDA, CDC, and conventional wisdom claim that pasteurized homogenized milk is equal in nutritional value to raw, and that the risks of foodborne illness are too great to warrant its sale or consumption.

Raw milk advocates claim that cleanly handled milk from healthy grass-fed cows carries no more disease risk than pasteurized milk. They also claim that raw milk is healthier because it contains all the naturally-occuring enzymes and beneficial bacteria, and the proteins are in a more digestible form.

Tangential, but related*, is the issue of homogenization, which is the process by which the butterfat globules are reduced in size so that the cream does not separate. There are theories that this also damages milk's nutritional value.

Now a few facts as I see them. Please correct me if you see any factual errors:
  • In the late 19th century, milk sold for human consumption in many large US cities was a very risky source of pathogenic bacteria, and probably** sickened many people. This was mostly produced by distillery dairies, in which cows were confined under filthy conditions and fed distillery waste. The milk was adulterated with extenders and fillers to increase profitability. Investigation and exposure of these practices caused public outrage. Rather than shut down the distillery dairies, public health officials created a stopgap system of pasteurization of risky sources, and certification of clean sources.
  • By the mid 20th century, under pressure from large dairy producers, many states had imposed mandatory pasteurization. This happened even while more and more sophistocated testing and monitoring became available to assure that certified milk was safe. For bulk dairy processors, it helped eliminate competition from small independent producers.
  • Since the 1940's there have been no significant studies on the relative risks and benefits of raw vs pasteurized milk.
  • Most milk today is sold through dairy cooperatives. Large processors set the prices paid to farmers, and their milk is pooled together. There is little incentive to produce high-quality milk, only to meet minimum standards. Such milk, before processing, is likely to harbor pathogens and be a disease risk. After processing it may still contain some pathogens, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, and pesticides. Because pasteurization reduces all bacteria, good and bad, as well as protective enzymes, the milk may be more vulnernable to colonization by pathogens should it become contaminated after processing.
  • Most milk sold to be consumed raw is sold directly to informed consumers. There is a great incentive for farmers to be transparent in their operations, to test and monitor their herds and milk, to maintain small herds and feed them on pasture. Prices paid to farmers are negotiated directly with consumers, and are usually much higher than what coops pay to farmers for bulk milk. Farmers are not dependent on industry for feed, equipment, supplies, or loans.
  • Conventional grain feeding and confinement promotes erosion and pollution, while properly-managed pasture feeding promotes soil health and biodiversity.
  • There are many foods, from beef to vegetables, that are sold in raw form and carry a greater risk of illness than grass-fed raw milk.
  • 28 US States allow the sale of raw milk under various regulations. Interstate sale of raw milk is prohibited by the Public Health Services Act.
  • High-ranking FDA officials are often picked from the ranks of food and pharmaceutical industry executives, and they often return to industry after their tenures in government service. The same situation exists in the USDA and other federal agencies. Whether or not this constitutes a conflict of interest is worthy of consideration.
  • Lower-ranking officials and agents in the field are trained at agricultural colleges where they may receive an education biased toward industry interests. They may be unaware of the reasonable arguments against agency positions.
  • In cooperation with law enforcement agencies, the FDA can selectively enforce laws which are enacted by Congress. In fact, given budget constraints, enforcement is selective out of necessity. There simply aren't enough agents or resources to adequately monitor all the farms and facilities associated with food production and distribution
  • Members of Congress who enact federal laws receive large campaign contributions from the corporations that control most of the food production in the USA. Whether or not this constitutes a conflict of interest is worthy of consideration.

I am a die-hard liberal. I believe the government can have an important role in the promotion of public health. I don't believe that harassing independent farmers is a legitimate part of that role. Why not investigate some real threats, like the novel and poorly-tested foods and drugs that have flooded the market in recent decades? Maybe it's because the independent farmer a) really does threaten the agro-industrial system, and b) looks like an easy target.

To counter this, the public needs to be active. Active in seeking information, active as consumers, and active in the public arena. Support your local farmers. Encourage your grocery to carry local organic products. Support legislation to legalize raw milk and promote consumer freedom. Contact your elected officials, and let them know you support independent farmers.

Further reading:
National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association
A Campaign for Real Milk
Schmid, Ron, 2009, The Untold Story of Milk, Revised and Updated
Food Freedom

1 comment:

  1. I just posted an interview with Doreen Hannes, who is very active in food politics. We discuss the FDA, USDA, and the issues of food safety. We also discuss what people can do to make their voices heard.

    The FDA has to be stopped from gaining more control, because they'll just use that power to advance Agenda 21 and shut down small farms. The interview can be heard here: