Here’s a Public Health Plan to Save Raw Milk Drinkers from Themselves
“Take me to your leader.”
I couldn’t help thinking of that cliche from old cowboy-Indian-style movies, as I listened to a recent podcast by two professors of food safety discussing raw milk (this is the podcast Joseph Heckman originally provided a link to; it’s the last 25 minutes that are most relevant to raw milk risk and safety).
The two professors are Don Schaffner of Rutgers University and Ben Chapman of North Carolina State University. Schaffner is also president of the International Association of Food Protection, one of the largest educational organizations around food safety. They regularly discuss various aspects of food safety, and this week chose to focus on how to more effectively alert raw milk drinkers about the dangers of the product.
“This product is risky,” said Schaffner. “We have to figure out a better way to get to the people with that risk information.”
Giving the professors new hope, they gushed, was the recent Minnesota study on raw milk (sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control)--the one that estimated that more than 20,000 people got sick from raw milk between 2001 and 2010, versus the 21 reported.
“Kudos to the people in Minnesota who carried out that study....it’s a fascinating piece of work,” said Schaffner, who is taken by its confirmation (to him) of the huge risk associated with drinking raw milk. It seems so obvious to the professors that not only is raw milk terribly dangerous, but that anyone who chooses to drink it must be completely uninformed....or just plain weird.
After all, how could anyone not understand? “It’s going to be hard to reach them” (these hardcore raw milk drinkers), bemoaned Schaffner.
“Maybe by reaching the farmers,” offered Chapman, and quickly dropped the idea: “Or maybe not if they are making money selling raw milk.”
Eventually, the two profs came up with a plan, the “take-me-to-your-leader” brainstorm. They recalled an effort by public health people in Washington state to convince poor Hispanics to avoid raw-milk queso fresco, the soft cheese that has a history of causing serious illnesses because it is often made in home bathtubs, from conventional raw milk intended for pasteurization. The public health people decided they couldn’t convince ordinary Hispanics, so the officials worked through leaders in the Hispanic community, and apparently made progress in reducing queso fresco consumption.
All of which brought Schaffner and Chapman back to the dilemma at hand: how to get word out to the fast-growing number of ordinary Americans who persist with this crazy habit of drinking raw milk. “We have to figure out a better way to get to the people with that risk information (about raw milk),” said Schaffner. “The people don’t trust us.”
The solution: Identify the leadership in the raw milk community who can get the word out. Just one problem, said Schaffner: “We don’t know who those advocates are, how to sell them.”
Huh? Don’t know who the advocates are? I didn’t realize that those of us advocating for availability of raw milk were so invisible. People like Mark McAfee, John Moody, Liz Reitzig, Pete Kennedy, Sally Fallon, Michael Schmidt, Vernon Hershberger, Alvin Schlangen, Heather Retberg, among many others, even yours truly. I didn’t realize the discussions over the last couple years about the Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI) and reducing the risks associated with raw milk had gone entirely unnoticed.
Shortly after exploring this line of reasoning, it must have hit the profs that they were considering actually speaking with the natives. They backed off. Encouraging discussion, Schaffner said, is akin to trying to eradicate needle sharing by drug users. “You don’t want to make it safer so that you encourage it (needle sharing).”
Did I hear that right? (I do know they were comparing raw milk consumption with drug use.)
In the end, they collectively shrugged their shoulders. “There’s something about raw milk that gets people all in a bind,” concluded Schaffner.
Maybe what gets people in a bind is that these guys seem so completely clueless about what is going on outside their ivory towers. That they fail even to pay lip service to the possibility that raw milk drinkers experience health benefits, as suggested by research from Europe. That they fail to find even a hint of a problem in the Minnesota raw milk research. That they fail to explore even a little why so many people are so distrustful of what the public health community's dire warnings about raw milk.
Or maybe it’s their reluctance to actually engage in any kind of serious direct way with people who might have a different view than them. It’s kind of like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doing a risk assessment of raw milk cheeses without even setting foot in a cheese-making facility, and then determining that soft raw milk cheeses are 50 to 160 times more dangerous than pasteurized ones. It’s the sanitized approach. You don’t dirty your hands by messing with the natives.
Part of the problem stems from their own logical and emotional inconsistencies. Several times during the podcast, Schaffner and Chapman said they were in favor of people having the freedom to choose raw milk. Yet they agonize about how to warn raw milk drinkers about the dangers so there is no chance they will want to continue consuming it. Totally irreconcilable goals.
In the end, Schaffner and Chapman said they welcomed comments, and are considering another show on this same subject. Here’s a suggestion: Why not include some real live raw milk drinkers and get some real-world input, and possibly initiate serious discussion about effectively reducing risks while also building bridges.