Why Confronting the Experts Is So Tough, and Why Sports Drink Research Preferable to Exploring Raw Milk Benefits
The reminder from Mary Martin (in a comment following my March 19 post) that it’s been three years since she first posted on this blog, got me thinking about how much things have changed in the world of raw milk over that period.
Her journal, posted on this blog about dealing with son Chris’ illness, apparently from E.coli 0157:H7, led to an outpouring of commentary. That experience led her to become ever more expert on the fine points of food-borne illness. It also led me to detail her experiences in my book, The Raw Milk Revolution, as an example of the mystery and agony surrounding illnesses associated with raw milk.
Certainly one huge shift over the last three years is the growing fascination by the media with raw milk. When Mary first posted in early 2007, raw milk was typically mentioned only in small newspaper fillers containing warnings from state public health authorities. Now, we have at least three documentaries in the works about raw milk—“Farmageddon” from Kristin Canty, “Milk Men” from Max Kane, and now “Germ Wars” from a California producer, Jed Riffe.
The New York Times came out with an article yesterday that claims “the raw milk movement is becoming something of a cult, growing nationwide.” The article, while somewhat sarcastic about the growing popularity of raw milk, is surprisingly fair (and not just because it quotes me).
But not surprising, the establishment agendas dominate. The bulk of the media attention continues to parrot the public health establishment’s fear mongering, only amplifying it half a dozen times over what it was in 2007. An eye-opening example is one that just came out in Wisconsin, site of the contentious battle over aggressive anti-dairy regulator actions and over legislation that could legalize raw milk on a very limited basis.
It’s eye opening, first, because of the new level of anti-raw-milk hyperbole (something public health types always accuse raw milkies of). This from Bill Keene, a prominent epidemiologist out of Oregon: “"I think after a few dead kids, people will lose their enthusiasm for raw milk.” I met Bill Keene last summer at the American Veterinary Medical Association day-long symposium on raw milk, and he actually seemed like a reasonable guy (for a regulator), but when it comes to raw milk, reason is often a casualty.
The Wisconsin article is even more revealing for what it says about the dairy industry’s priorities, and its supposed concern about the importance of children. The article actually mentions studies out of Europe and New Zealand that document raw milk’s benefits in reducing allergies and eczema in children, and then states:
“The University of Wisconsin has not done comparison tests of raw and pasteurized milk because the testing would cost several hundred thousand dollars, would take several years to complete, and no one has asked for it.
“ ‘It could be done. But right now we are doing work on behalf of the dairy industry, on things like low-sodium cheese or protein in sports drinks. That is where the state, and the industry, wants to spend its money,’ said Rusty Bishop, director of the Center for Dairy Research at the university.”
With a straight face (I presume), this big-shot researcher with a huge research budget is saying protein in sports drinks trumps finding a possible antidote to chronic skin and allergy conditions affecting children. These are the same people who shed crocodile tears about “the children” who could get sick from food-borne illness. (They never seem to shed tears over the explosion of chronic conditions in children.) And here they’re defending sports drinks over kids’ illnesses. I always knew they thought that way, but never thought I’d find one of their top dogs saying it, with pride.
Look at it another way: Suppose there was a vaccine that could cut childhood asthma by 40% or more. But there was a slight risk of illness. What do you think the public health establishment would be saying? Of course. (Deep voice) “That slight risk is worth taking if we can save hundreds or thousands of children from the ravages of asthma. We’ll never stop searching for ways to keep making this vaccine even more effective, and reduce any risks there might be. It’s too important, for the children.” And they'd be applying for ever-larger grants from the pharmaceutical companies and the federal government...and getting the money.
The public health establishment’s growing shrillness against raw milk belies its growing concerns over raw milk’s exploding popularity. That shrillness also helps us understand how the establishment behaves when challenged on matters it would prefer to ignore. Joseph Heckman, a professor at Rutgers University and an advocate of food rights, alerted me to an insightful 1996 book, Confronting the Experts. It presents the stories of scientists who sought to confront established views on such matters as fluoridation and nuclear power. It concludes:
“Establishment experts are in a powerful position. Typically, they have superior numbers, prestigious positions, high credibility with the media and the public, control over professional and academic journals, and links with powerful groups. Faced by a challenge, their usual initial response is simply to ignore it…If…critics become too noisy, too credible or too influential, then they are liable to be suppressed ina more overt and heavy-handed fashion, for example by personal attacks on the dissident.”
“If being ignored or being suppressed were the major problems in confronting establishment experts, this would not be such a difficult business. There is something more involved: vested interests behind the establishment position. Indeed, vested interests are crucial in making a position into one called an ‘establishment.’”
Wisconsin may take a small step toward allowing raw milk. But the vested interests are lined up to make sure that even if it’s passed, it will be continually challenged, the regulators encouraged to enforce it as strictly as possible.
Mary Martin concludes her note by stating, “It is time to focus on working together to make raw milk safe as humanly possible.” I think lots of people are prepared to do that, but for that to happen, there must be a level of good will. The vested interests tend to be rich on the financial side, but quite impoverished when it comes to good will.