Is There a Way to Move Past the Cycle of Blame and Retribution Over Raw Milk?

A photo from the Oregon Department of Public Health of the Foundation Farm, accused of producing raw milk that sickened members of a herdshare; the photo is supposed to suggest the animals were kept under unsanittary conditions. Back in the days of the Old South early last century, there'd be this awful cycle of violence that went something like this: A black man would be accused of snatching a purse or stealing food or, God forbid, smiling or making eye contact with a white woman. This was "the incident." There might well have been a violation of the law, but that mattered less than who was responsible when it came to how events unfolded.

Then would come "the reaction." Whites would express outrage among each other, that local blacks were misbehaving, just didn't know how to conduct themselves, were inherently criminal and had it in for whites. Maybe a local politician or lawyer would give voice to the complaints via a speech or two or quotes in the local media. 

Local blacks would then cower, waiting for "the retribution." It might be the accused summarily convicted by a white jury and hauled off to jail with a long-term jail sentence, or it might even be the guys in white robes, masks, and pointy hats showing up in the middle of the night and taking black men who had nothing to do with the original incident off to be shot or hung.

There's an analogy in that awful history to what's happening in the world of raw milk right now. Sure, it's an imperfect analogy, but there are some important similarities. There have been reports of outbreaks associated with raw milk in Missouri and Oregon. Most disturbing, reports of children having become seriously ill from E.coli O157:H7.

These are "the incidents." But less important than the actual events is how the situation unfolds.

Now, we're getting some of the "the reaction." Fred Pritzker, a personal injury lawyer, put out a press release yesterday calling for a ban on raw milk for children, based on the Missouri situation.

A local paper, The Oregonian, had a lengthy report on the illnesses in the state, with most of it devoted to official condemnations of raw milk. Here's an excerpt:

" 'There are laws that prohibit the retail sale (of raw milk) because this is not a safe product," Hedberg (a state epidemiologist) said. 'People think there is a controversy. There is no controversy. People routinely used to get sick from raw milk.'

"A report published this month by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that between 1993 and 2006 a total of 930 people fell ill after consuming raw milk, including 71 who were hospitalized. In other outbreaks during the same period associated with raw milk cheese, 641 were sickened, including 131 who were hospitalized. Two people died after eating raw milk cheese.

"CDC and other food safety experts have long warned the public to only consume milk products that are pasteurized, which kills harmful foodborne bacteria."

There follow quotes from lawyer Bill Marler describing cases he has handled from illnesses involving raw milk, concluding that  "it doesn't seem that any possible benefits outweigh the risks."

So, now that the media and public health people and lawyers have done their fear-mongering thing, farmers and consumers around the country await "the retribution." Will it be like what happened in Minnesota following on the accusations against dairy farmer Michael Hartmann in 2010, when eight illnesses associated with E.coli O157:H7 were linked to his dairy? In the aftermath, authorities acted out the equivalent of the dragnet for a few black men to lynch--they shut down a popular Minneapolis food club, Traditional Foods Minnesota; invaded the home of suburban soccer mom Rae Lynn Sandvig in a vain search for quantities of raw milk and meat she was allegedly distributing; and arrested farmer Alvin Schlangen, who had nothing to do with Hartmann. (His trial, which could lead to a year in jail, begins April 14 in Minneapolis; supporters will hold a rally to support him.)

There weren't even any illnesses in California, when "the retribution" occurred there and multiple agencies went after Rawesome Food Club in Venice, eventually arresting three people associated with the food club and charging them with felonies. "The reaction" continues in California, where two of the three charged in connection with Rawesome--James Stewart and Sharon Palmer--have been charged with additional felonies in connection with loans some members extended to Palmer.

There is an excellent report on a recent court inquiry into those loans, and the slim evidence of fraud that was presented, put together by Angela Doss and posted at The Girl's Gone Raw blog. Much as in the kangaroo-court trials that occurred with blacks in the South, there's actually a possibility the modern-day scapegoats could be convicted and sentenced to serious jail terms.

Or "the retribution" could take the form of renewed lobbying against food rights in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota, where legislation to loosen slightly very tight restrictions on raw milk are under consideration.  The raw milk opponents will trot out lobbyists from Big Dairy and professors from universities supported by Big Ag to do more fear mongering.

What I find bothersome, as part of the community that is accused, is that it's nearly impossible to come up with a constructive reaction to all this. I feel terrible about children becoming seriously ill. While statistically we don't have a public health problem from raw milk, there's no question the raw milk community should be concerned about the kinds of illnesses occurring in Missouri and Oregon. Many want to know why such cases are occurring, and what can be done to reduce their likelihood--in other words, some combination of useful investigation, research and education.

But that kind of approach seems not to be an option in the current atmosphere of hysteria and recrimination. How do we respond in a sensitive and helpful way when we're simply being shouted at by lawyers using the Internet to out-market each other in their search for sick clients, and by public health officials who offer quips that "there is no controversy" because, after all, everyone agrees raw milk is inherently unsafe?  And you know that no matter how you respond, there's going to be officially sanctioned retribution upcoming as part of the response.

The larger problem is that there is so much dissonance and contradiction in the situation. Most fundamentally, the accusers want raw milk eliminated rather than any kind of reasoned inquiry. Not surprisingly, the targeted farmers and consumers get their backs up, and go into denial mode, seeking more proof that raw milk was the culprit in these situations.  Even those raw milk supporters who might want a reasoned discussion about how to learn from the illnesses that have occurred find it impossible to have any meaningful exchange with people who basically want the product eliminated or so severely regulated that it wouldn't be available. They are supposedly interested in furthering "the public health," yet seem uninterested in making raw milk safer. And, of course, we haven't even begun to consider the economic incentives in the move to rid the nation of raw milk  (beyond those for the lawyers).

Our culture teaches us that everything can be worked out by well-meaning people. The emphasis is on "well-meaning." So, the same tired cycle of verbal and regulatory recrimination repeats itself each time illnesses associated with raw milk occur, neither side really listening to the other, and instead engaged in a propaganda war to convince the public that it is right and the other side is wrong.

Ora Moose's picture

OK, so why aren't they hot to trot on banning hamburger? I'm pretty sure there's been a lot more illnesses and recalls on that?

Bottom line, put warnings on the labels and let the buyer decide. Kind of like how known carcinogen products such as cigarettes are handled. I haven't heard of any government agencies moving in and raiding or shutting them down even though the evidence is overwhelming.

I guess it really all boils down to going after the easier targets. Raw milk producers can't afford the lawyers. They're not going after corporate CAFO or BIGAG food producers simply because they know they'd have a long, protracted legal fight in their hands.

I know I'm going to sound like the proverbial voice of doom here, but no, the gubment is not going to go after the corporate reverends of cheaply and filthily (is that a word?) produced "supermarket type" (rather than a local butcher shop) hamburger, just like they've done almost nothing about anything else produced through BigAg which has caused health issues. I still see cantaloupe in the stores, I still see ground turkey in the stores, I still see spinach in the stores, I still see factory eggs in the stores. If these products had been produced by organic, small-farm growers and had sickened people, those farmers would be in jail. Do you see DeKoster in jail? What about someone - anyone - from Dean Foods? No. BigAg can get away with it not because, or not solely because of the money, but because our gubment is trying to convince the majority of the world that we NEED BigAg to survive and that these illnesses were just little blips on the screen of life. In other words, it was really no big deal that a few hundred people got really, really sick from THEIR stuff. But let one kid get sick from a glass of raw milk or a pastured egg (from a small producer) and the whole country goes ballistic and runs for the nearest lawyer (read: shyster) who has the word "contingency" in his ad.

This is reality the way I view it: I take a dim view of our gubment and the power we've foolishly given them in the past century. IF the gubment decides that raw milk is a product they no longer wish to have produced in the USA, they will outlaw its production and sale, and that will be the end of it. With the swipe of a pen our gubment can now destroy almost anything they decide is not in THEIR best interest and hang what the people want. They are just playing around with us for now.

David,
The problem you pose can be summed up this way.
Both sides are right, and both sides are wrong when it comes to raw milk.

The raw milk consumer and producer do see added benefits to the consumption of raw milk but in all too many cases idolize the animals, farms and practices that produce the milk so an honest assessment is impossible to consider.
The health authorities are correct in the fact that the national milk supply has significant presence of pathogens prior to pasteurization but refuses to ask the question why, and has excepted the fact as standard and idolize the efficiency of a common denominator.
Of course lawyers enter the fray to promote each side’s prejudices in hopes that a judge will settle the dispute and rule on the facts.
The problem is the true base facts have yet to be considered and the ability to have a discussion through research is blocked due to who has the direction of the labs needed to do the research funded for many years to come.
To blame raw milk as the source of illness in the population is akin to blaming the woodpecker for killing a tree. Upon close inspection we have insects infesting the tree that the woodpecker is consuming, a series of events that led to the increase in the bugs that infested the tree, climate shifts that allowed the increase in bugs and possible variables in the suns pattern that allowed for a shift in climate. It more than likely does not stop there, but that were we are at currently in our limited understanding of how our universe works.
To blame health authorities for an outright bias and or “conspiracy” allows those who make the claim to ignore their own limitations in understanding and possible threats to the product and limits the effort for constant learning needed to produce a product of increasing safety and the developed practice to do so.
Both viewpoints are also a victim of a larger social current that has affected every aspect of our lives. We a no longer a community but a population made up of distinct subsets that no longer talk or interact with one another. We have been guided into camps that only talk within our camps and one view point tends to rule the conversation.

In a true community, opposing viewpoints are heard and considered and we get exposed to other important viewpoints and the competition to have ones viewpoint ruled as static is reduced and true learning and cooperation is achieved.
I have long said that the raw milk/local food movement is more than just about food. It is our societies first step forward to rebuilding our communities and exposing ourselves to a diverse flora of ideas and ecologies. To claim we know it all is just a left over aspect of our imposed division. To ignore important information no matter is depth of challenge to our beliefs will only postpone the realities we face and the depth of challenges that need to be defined in order to effect change.

The raw milk community faces a rough road ahead, not only realizing our own blind spots as a community subset, but really embracing the work that needs to be done in being the first to understand how degraded our farming and livestock environment has become, and what it will take to right that imbalance. To ignore the signs of that imbalance will only delay our success. For the state to hold fast to its dependence on one viewpoint will only paint itself into irrelevance.

Tim Wightman

Ora Moose's picture

Tim, great post. However...

I believe the core issue is, as John Lennon might have put it: "all we are saying, is give us a choice."

I would also venture to say that the "teach, teach, teach" concept is certainly worthy and vital but, when you are a teacher and begin to believe you already know it all, is when you become dangerous to others and even yourself. It's extremely important to keep on learning, especially for teachers.

To sum it up, success is not proving yourself right, or someone else wrong. It is helping yourself to understand as much as you can, and helping others do so. Eat well, be tolerant, and watch out for ulterior motives. Money is the root of all evil, food is not.

Ora Moose,

The contradictions in your reply make my point.
Asking for “choice” suggests you have accepted you have none, channels your fears at another rather than accepting responsibility for that belief and the limitations you have put on yourself.
To teach properly is to ask, and I agree if you teach to convince, critical thought is lost along with possibility.
Your statement that money is the root of all evil suggests that there is good and evil rather than lesson and experience, cause and effect.
Every action, experience, lesson is what it is and can be learned from or a jumping off point for better understanding of the root cause, but simply labeling it one thing or another stops all further exploration and its eventual elimination if physically harmful, or enhancement if it has properties that forward the human experience.
Tim

Ora Moose's picture

Tim,

There is always a choice, even if it is to give up and walk away from all other choices. I have no fears because I do not fear losing everything I have today, confident that I will survive regardless and will rebuild.

Unfortunately, there is indeed evil beyond lessons and experience, cause and effect. Greed knows no ethics. I try not to label or generalize but sometimes that is the best way to make your point.

Teaching does not equal instilling limitations or beliefs, it is all about expanding your horizons, in food and thought.

http://www.denverpost.com/breakingnews/ci_20399319/fda-criticized-secrec...

The FDA, like God, rains on who it will rain on, or not.

Sylvia Gibson's picture

Thanks Sharon, I think that reiterated what many on this blog have pointed out....the inequality from the govt. I've shared it with many.

Sylvia Gibson's picture

"he photo is supposed to suggest the animals were kept under unsanittary conditions."

Really? I just assumed it had rained.

Yes! Obviously the people who "interpreted" this photo have never been on a farm or ranch in their lives after a rainfall. Besides, are they blind to the fact that a few hundred yards away is a beautiful green pasture??? (Or am I just dreaming that I see a green pasture in that photo?!).

Excellent article David.
I like to repeat my own assessment of the current situation.
In the US and in Canada so called health authorities are currently " creating statistic evidence" to make their case.
This can be achieved by simply creating a situation through intentional contamination or by linking an outbreak intentionally to milk even when there is a greater possibility that in fact the source of illness can come from many possible sources.
Even if after the fact it is clear that there is and never was a conclusive link to raw milk it still will be listed in the record at the CDC.
We really need to ask the question what is the REAL reason for these actions.
I do not think that we have gotten to the bottom of this question.
Resist ,resist, resist.

churchlanefarm's picture

Michael

There are no doubt a great many opinions out there with respect to the reasons for “their actions”. What it appears to boil down to is “control” whether due to a genuine concern for health, greed, or self centered pride in order to preserve the integrity of the system and a belief.

I agree with you that the issue centers on “freedom of choice” with respect to the food that we consume and feed to our children. That being said it also has a great deal to do with a belief that certain organisms are the enemy and therefore the need to adopt an antagonistic shot gun hit and miss approach to deal with such organisms.

The belief that ones knowledge is infallible is indeed, as Ora Moose states, “when you become dangerous to others and even yourself”.

It is because of individuals such as MW and her narrow focus on mud and all the “terrible” organisms that reside within it, that we have CAFO’s where livestock are kept on concrete all of their lives with little to no exposure to the outside environment including green grass, sunshine and rain.

The growing prevalence of CAFO’s and the demise of the family farm are also the result of a North American economy that is structured on the bases of maintaining a cheap food supply and unless this attitude changes I think it’s silly expect to solve problems such as animal abuse and unhealthy food via regulation.

Ken Conrad

Sylvia Gibson's picture

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/15/dole-bagged-salad-recall_n_1427...

They wait 4 days after the 'sell by date'.... The state of NY found the contamination...NOT the US govt.

Sylvia Gibson's picture

Backyard chickens have been slowly growing over the last few years or so, as have home gardens. To see how much 'trends' are really growing, you can look at what the stores are selling. Williams & Sonoma is selling (expensive) chicken coops on wheels and various gardening items. For such a high end store to offer these things makes my wonder just how big the home gardening and backyard chickens have become. Perhaps this is what the big ag- et al sees and they are afraid?

Sophie's picture

Syvia, I think your point is spot on. Big Ag's only hope is to nip the "fringe element" in the bud.

How about some retribution for the farmer in Michigan who shot his own hogs as the DNR was coming at him just to avoid being prosecuted as a felon? http://www.bakersgreenacres.com/
and
http://www.naturalnews.com/035585_Michigan_farms_raids.html

Stop bitching about raw milk. Pull your heads out of your (gl)asses. There are worse things going on. The editor of Natural News is calling for armed citizens' arrest of DNR officials.

SharonZ-I posted this earlier. Natural News is misrepresenting the facts. I am a farmer in SW Michigan. I am trying to get more information regarding the Michigan pig situation. Since the posting below I have learned that 1) we are getting our heritage pigsfrom our producer without any hassels and that such pigs are not being targeted and 2) that farmers who have kept both Rusian boars and heritiage hogs have had to give up their Russian boars. Not saying the ISO regulation is acceptable--just that there is more to the story. There is another issue and that is having access to "wild" non domesticated stock for breeding purposes, i.e. as a repository of potentially desirable genetics. Perhaps a property rights issue getting lost in the current chatter. The "farms" mentioned in the websites you cited are game ranches that raise Russian boars for guided paid for hunts-far removed from the image of a small family farm raising pork for locavores.
David-reposting
I do not know the specifics of the two “farms” mentioned in the article regarding DNR actions. We have been assured by producers near us-actual farmers- that domesticated hogs-that are dark in color etc. are not being targeted. I have not personally heard from any of our producers that domesticated heritage hogs have been killed. Are there any examples?

The two “farms” featured in the article are hunting “ranches” in Northern Michigan. The only hogs mentioned on their websites are Russian boars-these are not domesticated heritage hogs. (http://www.renegaderanch.org/default.asp, http://www.deertracksranch.com/) .

Game ranches backed by big money---- brought into our state infected animals that have had a huge negative impact on our agricultural community-TB and wasting disease. Our state fought hard to achieve split state status and have our lower 57 counties classified as “accredited TB-free.” Though agricultural enterprises, game ranches-hunting preserves are regulated differently and do not fall under the same umbrella as what we think of as “farms.” I think it is important to distinguish our farm community from the “guided hunting ranch community” Distinguishing the two does not to justify State questioned actions-just a request that we deal clearly with the fundamental issues and not use a game ranch as an example of a small family farm having its herd of dark hogs wacked.

And I am not saying that the regulations should not be rescinded, that Constitutional rights have not been violated and the issue not reevaluated with more public input. Let’s just get the stories straight.

Sorry I don't quite buy that. This is the old divide and conqure tactic. 'They're not coming for me (yet) so I needn't worry or do anything.'

From what I've seen of the regs do not distinguish based on breed, only physical characteristics. Russian boars are the same species as all our other breeds and any breed of hog that goes ferral fairly quickly changes type.

"We have been assured by producers near us-actual farmers- that domesticated hogs-that are dark in color etc. are not being targeted"

What matters is the law and what they can get away with doing with it, not any momentary assertions as to how it will be applied.

Mark Baker got into this because his Mangalitsas, a fully 'domestic' hog, share many coat characteristics with the Russian boars. His and other farmers attempts to dialog with the DNR will less than reassuring.