A Raw Milk Tragedy Gone Terribly Wrong in the Re-Telling
As a journalist, I probably read news reports and articles differently than most people….as in more critically. At the same time, I admire well done stories, especially in my own area of expertise. In some cases, I wish I had done one or another story myself.
So I was intrigued with the recent article in Food Safety News about the Foundation Farm illness outbreak of 2012. From the get-go, this outbreak from E.coli O157:H7, which sickened 19 people, most of them children, was bad news for all concerned. I wrote several posts about the anguish the incident posed, for everyone concerned.
From a journalistic viewpoint, the FSN writer, Cookson Beecher, did an excellent bit of reporting in profiling two families—the parents of a little girl who nearly died from complications of her illness associated with Foundation Farm’s tainted milk, and the owners of Foundation Farm. It’s a gut-wrenching human interest story, in which two families who have every reason to fear and avoid the other wind up forgiving and even helping each other. It’s definitely understandable that the lesson both families would draw from the tragedy is that raw milk is highly risky.
But unfortunately, Beecher couldn't stay with the human interest aspects of the story—the guilt felt by all, the tragic unfolding of Kylee’s illness, the inspiring reconciliation between the families, the concerns the families have about raw milk safety. No, Beecher turns the story into seriously slick propaganda.
The article cleverly transitions from a cautionary tale about the challenges of producing safe raw milk into inflammatory propaganda that raw milk is inherently unsafe. If you go into the raw milk debate with the view that raw milk is inherently unsafe, then any single example of illness can serve your purpose. Beecher obviously has that viewpoint, and she quickly loses the human interest story in favor of the real agenda.
It hits all the anti-raw-milk hot buttons in one endless flow. There is the denial of European research showing raw milk protects against asthma and allergies, via a lengthy monolog from the head of an asthma/allergy foundation that includes this bizarre quote: “The thought that this can cure allergies is actually a dangerous thought.” Wow, a “dangerous thought” backed up by serious scientific research.
There is a slam on the stupidity of raw milk drinkers who won’t heed the CDC/FDA warnings because they, imagine, don’t trust the government authorities. Turning this story into blatant propaganda will simply increase the cynicism and mistrust of those inclined toward raw milk.
Finally, there is the slam on Sally Fallon and the Weston A. Price Foundation, as if they are the cause of the Foundation Farm illnesses. (“Its website shows a happy, healthy-looking family with this headline above the photo: ‘They’re happy because they eat butter.’ “)
Interestingly, the article never addresses the story line first put out by Oregon Public Health, which circulated the photo above—the likelihood that the owners of Foundation Farm, Brad and Tricia Salyers, may not have been running the safest operation. While the Salyers obviously don’t want to consider that possibility--they find more palatable joining the chorus about raw milk's inherent dangers--how does Beecher manage to avoid any such suggestion about unsafe conditions?
In a comment following the article, Shawna Barr raises that issue, inquiring whether Beecher visited the farm, or inquired about safety standards, gently suggesting that conditions at the farm and the farmers’ lack of training, might have raised the risk of tainted milk at Foundation Farm. Beecher responds that “the point of the article isn't about problems at Salyers' farm but rather that no matter how clean things can be on a farm, there's still the risk.”
There you have the writer-turned-propagandist's true confession: While risk is acceptable for other foods, it isn’t acceptable for raw milk. In her view, raw milk is inherently unsafe, and no amount of attention to farmer education and safety standards will change that. Difficult to have a discussion about change when change isn’t one of the options.
One final note: There are those in the food rights community who won’t appreciate me giving this piece of scurrilous propaganda the kind of attention I have. They would rather ignore it, pretend it doesn't exist. I would argue that it’s important to answer lies with truth. As in political campaigns, you try not to let the opposition define you. Turning this tragedy into ideological ammunition just compounds the tragedy, and it needs to be exposed for what it is.
I wrote recently about how writers sometimes resort to stereotypes in reporting on food rights. Another example just came out in Modern Farmer, in a summary of hog farmer Mark Baker's legal case against the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and its genetic purification rules. In the space of four paragraphs, Baker's case is pegged as supported by "Libertarians," he is depicted as "prone to...gun talk," and he is described as selling his pigs to high-end restaurants. The "Libertarian" thing seems to grow out of his association with raw milk advocates, who are assumed to all be "Libertarian." Why? Your guess as good as mine.
The "gun talk" grows out of Baker's reference to guns in an interview with the writer. At the end of the article, the author provides a partial transcript of her conversation with Baker (in response to his complaint about inaccuracy), in which she clearly prods him about guns. ("Do you own guns?....a lot of guns?.....Would you use them to defend your farm?") In my many conversations with Baker, I've heard him refer to guns in one context only: his fear that law enforcement agents might hunt him down somewhere around his isolated farm in their ongoing effort to intimidate him out of business.
As for his business supplying pork to restaurants, that business ended two years ago, with the DNR rules against so-called feral pigs, some of which Baker raises.
That's a lot of screwups in such a short article. But necessary when you are creating a particular stereotype.