The Negotiating on Raw Milk Standards Has Begun
“If you wanna complain….I’m not the complaint department.”
From song, "Complaint Department" by Likki Li
Maybe I am the complaint department, since I run this blog. Certainly the complaints keep coming.
There was Mark McAfee’s comment, that, “During our weekly RAWMI conference call…the subject of this blog came up. It was shared by one of our board members that productive dialogue is not possible when toxic personalities cannibalize the conversation.”
Then there were complaints growing out of his comment, as to whom he was referring to about “toxic personalities.”
There have been several comments made privately to me, in just the last few days, from people who felt insulted by the caustic nature of the debate that sometimes evolves here.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. It rears its head from time to time, sometimes with negative consequences. I have lost friends over the tenor of my posts and the discussion here. I have seen people I highly respect become so frustrated with this blog that they have left in a huff. I have seen public health professionals participate for a time, and then throw up their hands in disbelief at the tone of the back-and-forth.
What’s going on? Certainly I have responsibility,, since I provoke. I poke fun at the authorities. I was guilty early on of personalizing some of my attacks at people in positions of power. I found that some of those created more negativity than positive results, and gradually, I have avoided personalizing my criticism. Even that little speaking skit I did recently, I intentionally avoided assuming the name of a real bureaucrat.
But beyond that, I think that raw milk and food rights are by their nature highly volatile political issues, which generate volatile reactions in people. That’s not just here. It’s difficult to have any kind of rational discussion about raw milk, even among supporters. I’ve seen the phenomenon on other web sites, when they publish an article of some kind about raw milk, and then there are 200 comments lambasting the author and each other.
Part of what makes raw milk so emotional, in my view, is that milk is our first food, and remains an important food through much of childhood. We have primal feelings about milk.
Another part has to do with the fact that our government has long tried to prevent access to raw milk, and continues to do so, even as it has become ever more popular and desired. If you look even casually at world history, you quickly realize that food riots and food shortages have been the sparks for huge political upheaval. Politically, it’s almost never a good idea to be messing with people’s food.
Before I go on, I want to say (again) that none of the controversy about raw milk and food rights is an excuse for personal attacks. It is possible to debate the issues, without questioning the personal motives or sincerity of others.
Back to complaints…. I guess it wasn’t a big surprise when the matter of this blog’s tone came up in that podcast interview I finally did last week (Jan. 29) with the two professors I discussed a few weeks back, Don Schaffner of Rutgers University and Ben Chapman of North Carolina State. They, too, told me they don’t like the blog’s tone. They told me they thought my previous post about them was insensitive, and inaccurately represented some of their views. They thought that a number of comments from readers as well represented a “negative tone and hyperbole.”
Why bring all this business about debate and tone up now? Because it seems as if we may be at an important new phase in the long war over raw milk: We may well be in early negotiations about raw milk safety standards—in effect, official acceptance of raw milk and a raw milk marketplace. All the state proposals to broaden raw milk availability, the growing public support for those proposals, together with the assemblage of university and regulatory people at the Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI) that Mark McAfee describes, are part of an important sorting out. More on that later….
There are most certainly huge obstacles to overcome—the corporate dairy producers, together with their puppets at the FDA, haven’t given up by a long shot. Nor has much of the regulatory and health community had a change of heart. But in terms of the debate, there has actually been progress over the last few years, and the coming together of various constituencies at RAWMI is the clearest indication.
All this has taken a long time to jell for good reason. I got more of a sense of the chasm that exists between the pro and anti-raw-milk camps during that podcast last week with the two representatives of the academic community. I felt at times like I was in the Twilight Zone, in a land of double talk, where we were literally speaking different languages. And believe me, we were all trying very hard to be polite (and I believe for the most part, we were polite).
First, I tried to pin the two professors down on what they think about legalizing raw milk availability, and I just couldn’t do it. They talked like academics, about "a continuum," "risk management.” I believe Schaffner even said he was “a libertarian on raw milk,” presumably in favor on some theoretical level.
I pursued the matter: Were there any state situations allowing raw milk that they liked, that might serve as a model for states like their own, New Jersey and North Carolina, that prohibit its sale? Nope. Nothing doing. No way they were going to be caught endorsing raw milk in any kind of specific substantive way.
I only lost it once, when they spoke about that recent CDC-sponsored Minnesota study being “good science.” (They challenged me on whether the study was truly CDC-sponsored, as I have repeatedly referred to it; it turns out the language at the end of the study says the study was financed "in part through cooperative agreements" with the CDC--it doesn't say where any other "part" of the financing came from, and the study is posted on the CDC web site. Don’t think I was inaccurate on that one.)
I think they were insulted when I started laughing hysterically at their suggestion that the Minnesota study was started as a serious scientific endeavor designed to learn more about raw milk, and not to slam it. Really? Just important new knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Uh-huh.
They did kind of get me when I protested that I had been to Minnesota a number of times, met many dozens of raw milk drinkers, and never met anyone who spoke about getting sick, or knew anyone who became ill. Ah, but I couldn’t possibly know all the many thousands of raw milk drinkers, they argued. Correct, I couldn’t.
From there, we moved on to the question of whether the feds really have it in for raw milk. They said, quite sincerely, that they didn’t think so. As if food club members and farmers who have been hit by raids are all paranoid.
I don’t want to suggest the discussion was nonproductive. Simply viewing the chasm so starkly was informative, at least for me. There was even an important point of agreement, I'd say: that pushing the U.S. toward more of a black-market system is not desirable. That producing the safest possible raw milk is desirable.
All of which brings me back to the matter of negotiations toward broader acceptance of raw milk, as illustrated by the activity at RAWMI. Mark McAfee, the founder of RAWMI (and owner of Organic Pastures Dairy Co.), said RAWMI “has been approached by the best researchers, the best universities, and a consortium of regulators to…navigate a better future for raw milk.”
Miguel astutely pointed out that “producers and consumers will have to produce and consume a product that is designed by universities, government agencies, researchers and regulators, giving those groups tremendous power…” What he was suggesting is that the legitimization of raw milk could well have important repercussions, beginning with involvement by extension services that Shawna Barr referred to.
As I said, we are at the early stages of this negotiation process. The simple fact that negotiations seem to have begun is a huge development. It’s just important to appreciate that the chasm between the public health professionals and those of us who feel we should make the decisions about the foods we ingest is quite wide. That begins to explain why so much frustration bubbles up here on this blog, and why the complaints keep coming.