How Will WI Raw Milk Opponents Choose to Fight? On the Issues, or via American-Style Fatwas?
Questions, questions. Here's one before I get to those in the heading: What does raw milk have to do with genetically modified food?
I found myself asking that question as I read through the comments following my previous post about kombucha. They all seem to come down to the issue of trust. Lykke launched the debate when she said, “I could care less if something is GMO.”
Many of the objections that followed stem from the fact that most people on this blog care very much whether food is GMO, just as they care whether it is irradiated, treated with pesticides…or pasteurized. There is a fundamental mistrust of the health establishment—we know that just because they say certain processes or drugs are “harmless” doesn’t make it so. In fact, the reality may well be quite the opposite.
All of which brings me back to the new raw milk working group planned in Wisconsin, and a comment by Gary Cox of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund following my previous post: “It appears that most of the proposed members are either government anti-raw milk officials or are large scale agribusiness practitioners.”
I’ve heard that comment from a number of people familiar with the twenty individuals appointed to the working group. It doesn’t surprise me that Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) would try to stack the deck in favor of an agenda that, even if it recommends legalizing the sale of raw milk (not guaranteed), imposes such tight restrictions that the regulatory process becomes a means of harassing dairy farms and, in effect, making raw milk difficult to obtain—not unlike what New York has done to its raw dairy farmers via its tough inspections and continual findings of listeria in raw milk that makes no one ill.
Still, I’m optimistic about the opportunity that Wisconsin affords. Because it is such a huge dairy state, the DATCP working group could, in effect, set a precedent for negotiating raw milk availability nationwide. I see the working group as essentially a negotiating forum for setting up safety and distribution standards for raw milk.
The simple fact that it was established was a major concession by DATCP, an acknowledgment that it was under siege from outraged consumers and farmers, and needed to act before losing further credibility.
However, raw milk proponents will need to keep up the pressure. They will need to counter attitudes like those in Lykke’s comment following my previous post:
“Perhaps change will happen when raw milk dairies embrace risk reduction and accept food safety as part of their culture (something the beef industry still can't do and keeps getting in trouble for it)? At the same time there is a mentality that raw milk is incapable of doing this, and a desire among regulators to give up because y'all are just a bunch of crazy anti-government people not concerned about consumer safety. Wrong too? Wisconsin could be an interesting test case because both sides are pure.”
My sense is that no matter how loudly raw dairy farmers profess their interest in safety, the public health regulatory establishment won't want to hear it. I predict that as the debate unfolds in Wisconsin, the vested interests will be working hard behind the scenes, bombarding working group members with fear mongering. It’s the type of fear mongering that food poisoning lawyer Bill Marler specializes in, and is currently trying to carry out against a Pennsylvania raw dairy selling raw milk via Whole Foods--a dairy that has committed itself to the highest possible safety standards.
If Bill Marler had bothered to listen to the video Whole Foods posted about Edwin Shank (whom I profiled last fall), he’d have learned that the farmer has committed to testing his dairy’s milk for pathogens far more often than required by Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture.
But Bill Marler isn’t interested in safety. He posted the first comment on the Whole Foods site containing the video, and he includes his standard bag of tricks: videos of people allegedly sickened by raw milk and a threat to sue Whole Foods for carrying raw milk. All of which has, not surprisingly, upset Edwin Shank a great deal. He wrote me today, referring to Bill Marler:
“It seems he somehow feels the need to create as much fear as possible. It is not that the videos are false information, but rather that they represent a phobic, unreasonable focus in one direction. Does he also feel compelled to show car wreck pictures and paralyzed children on ventilators when a car company comes out with a new model and is highlighting new and improved safety features that are even more than the government requires? Or ditto to spinach and beef vendors.
"I'll have to admit it does anger and yet scare me a little. The injustice is so monstrous. The lawyers seemingly would just love to see someone get sick that also drank raw milk."
Absolutely correct, Edwin. I’ll go a step further. The reason “the injustice is so monstrous” is that Bill Marler has the regulators and judges in his corner. His threats remind me of what the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran did against the novelist, Salman Rushdie, in 1989. The Ayatollah issued a “fatwa” against him, essentially threatening him with death. Had Rushdie not lived in Great Britain, where he was given round-the-clock police protection, he might have been killed. So when Bill Marler issues his threats in the U.S. against a large retailer and a farmer supplier, it’s akin to a fatwa, a religiously-based threat. Go get ‘em, he’s saying to lawyers and regulators alike. But unlike Rushdie in Great Britain, Edwin Shank and Whole Foods can’t necessarily expect much in the way of protection from their country’s legal and public health establishments. (Of course, money counts for a lot here, so Whole Foods, if it so chooses, can try to defend itself against the army of lawyers and regulators swarming about.)
One final note: Bill Marler will likely respond by saying I don’t care about kids getting sick. It’s his standard response if you disagree with him on this subject. All I can say is that ever more consumers and farmers alike are beginning to see through the arrogance and fear-mongering he, Doug Powell, John Sheehan, and various others of America's health establishment bring to bear.
The problem these people face going forward is that as more consumers become informed about the reality of the struggle over raw milk, and related issues like genetically modified food, they conclude they can’t trust the establishment to tell the truth. (You can see on the Whole Foods site, Bill Marler is the only comment of more than a dozen that expresses antipathy about Whole Foods carrying raw milk in Pennsylvania.) As the distrust spreads, the fear mongering sounds ever more hollow. That’s what I’m expecting will carry the day in Wisconsin.