Out of the Loop: Proposed Raw Milk Standards Are Nearly Ready for Review, Says Tim Wightman--Beyond "Food Inc."
?"It's all about risk and it's all about letting adults take risks and it's all about us as a society being willing to do the things that made this country great. I'm worried about us." Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania expressing his upset on NBC News last evening about the National Football League's first-ever decision to postpone Sunday night's football game in Philadelphia because of bad weather.
"You've touched a nerve nationally." Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor, in response.
Gov. Rendell might well have been speaking about any number of unnerving trends in our society, including the government's crackdown on raw milk and other nutrient-dense foods (though the fact that it was professional football, of course, made it a much bigger deal than food). All of which relates to the ongoing discussion here about standards for raw milk, and what I see as the need to keep sight of the big picture.
I like Maurice Kaehler's use of the Latin derivative of conspiracy, "to breathe together." It captures the overall spirit and sentiment in the many thoughtful comments following my previous couple of posts.
Yes, there is much fear of government takeover of standards, or just the implicit invitation to government involvement that even voluntary standards suggest. Rightfully so. Sadly, our government agencies have become the enemy of the people they govern, but they must be fought intelligently. Anyone who's read my book, The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America's Emerging Battle Over Food Rights, and has read this blog for a while, knows I'm the last person to want more government involvement in raw dairy, and in other areas of sustainable agriculture. Quite the opposite.
I am encouraging the consideration of standards for one basic reason: to improve product quality and so reduce the number of illnesses ascribed to raw milk, thereby giving government agencies less reason to think about raw dairy. Simple as that. Sure, there will continue to be unreasonable enforcement--after all, it's part of the national health (illness?) agenda--but fewer outbreaks and illnesses will almost certainly cool official attention to raw milk, allowing demand to continue growing, with raw milk producers and consumers reaping the benefits. Moreover, when the busy bodies do their thing, it will be that much easier to build public support and bring crowds to agency hearings and court rooms demonstrating consumer sentiment.
All by way of returning to the subject of raw milk standards, and the thickening plot about what might be in the wings. There has been a good deal of confusion here, and I have been part of the confusion, by suggesting there hasn't been a sustained and organized effort to develop raw milk standards. There has been--it's just that the people suspected here as being part of it--Bill Anderson, Mark McAfee, and myself--have been on the outside, and we haven't even been looking in.
But Tim Wightman, head of the Farm-to-Consumer Foundation, has indeed been very hard at work developing proposed standards. He's been quietly working for well over a year with a committee including Steve Bemis, a Michigan lawyer and a member of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund; Blair McMorran, executive director of the Raw Milk Association of Colorado; and Meg Cattell, owner of a raw dairy, a member of the board of the Raw Milk Association of Colorado, and a veterinarian.
I had heard discussion about the effort months ago, from a couple of the committee members, but was told it was hush-hush until the effort was further along, and so I didn't think much about it. But then I had a conversation yesterday with Tim Wightman, as a followup to the intense discussion occurring on this blog, and learned that his group may well be within days or weeks of disclosing an initial draft of proposed standards.
My first reaction was irritation. There has been lots of discussion about raw milk standards here and at various food conferences over the last year, with part of the lament being that there's been seemingly no follow-through and leadership. Why the heck no openness on the well organized Wightman committee effort? I'll return to that question, because there are some larger questions deserving of attention.
First off, what will the Wightman committee's standards consist of? He didn't want to get overly detailed, since the committee hasn't yet reviewed a complete draft, nor has it even decided whether to make public an early draft, or wait until the standards are further along.
He suggested the standards are holistic and focused heavily on improving soil and animal health as the primary means of improving product quality. "No one in the country has drunk their best glass of milk yet," he said. "Most farms need improvement. There's this quasi-kosher understanding that everything is fine."
The proposed standards are driven by the notion that "except for a very few places, and very few individuals, we have lost the art and wisdom of dairy farming, and must now chart our path to regain that wisdom while producing the best possible and safe products as we move forward."
He said the proposed standards will "set levels of known safety that can be met by any number of husbandry practices, but, the principals for creating balanced soil, nutrient dense forage, and nutrient dense food are woven within these standards and is designed to eliminate the guess work of what is safe and nutrient dense, while evaluating soil and herd health programs for the effective production of excellent, safe, raw drinking milk."
He suggested the standards will run counter to much of the popular thinking about agriculture currently popular in the foodie movement. "They read Michael Pollan and see 'Food Inc.' and they think everything is all right" in sustainable agriculture. "They think if we feed our cows grass, we will be fine. We have to rebuild the soil and animal health. If raw milk illnesses keep cropping up, the state will do something about it, and it won't be pretty."
How will standards be adopted and implemented? Wightman said he sees a two-year review period before the standards are finalized. And once finalized, he anticipates they will be voluntary.
But he noted that "voluntary" is subjective, and that the standards could be used in various ways as an incentive to encourage dairy farmer compliance. For example, the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund might use the standards "to audit farms that ask for representation" in legal cases. "If you are not following the standards, it may not bode well for representation."
Anyway, why all the hush-hush? Wightman says the standard-setting hasn't been as hush hush as it seems. He said Canadian farmer Michael Schmidt has been privy to what's been going on. But Sally Fallon, head of the Weston A. Price Foundation, and closely aligned with the Farm-to-Consumer Foundation and Legal Defense Fund, has not seen anything as yet, he said. My sense is that the quiet approach is Tim Wightman's style, to do the work without a lot of distractions, as in farmers and consumers telling him regularly what they think.
My inclination, as I stated at the start, is to try to stay focused on the big picture. The food rights movement is highly fragmented, and it is fighting powerful enemies, not to mention uneducated legislators and judges. Initiatives like the development of raw milk standards won't necessarily happen as elegantly as many people might like. What's important, as much as possible, is that proponents of raw milk and food rights stay focused on the task at hand. The national mood is foul, in large measure over the economy, but also because of a major shift over the last half century away from a respect for individual rights and responsibilities, and toward institutional control, as Gov. Randell identified in objecting to the postponing of a football game.