Role Reversal: MD Legislators Put Public Health Officials on the Hot Seat Over Legalizing Raw Milk
I have been watching legislative and court hearings about raw milk for a number of years now, and the scenario runs something like this: Raw milk proponents parade up to the stand to describe how drinking raw milk helped them resolve chronic illnesses and generally improve their health. Farmers talk about how selling raw milk allows them to get closer to their customers and improve their financial conditions.
Then the public health officials take the stand, and you can kind of feel the air go out of the room as they testify that raw milk is terribly risky, and causes diseases that kill. Legislators and judges kind of pale and defer to the scientists from on high.
That was the scenario that seemed to be unfolding in a Maryland House of Representatives hearing room in Annapolis on Tuesday. Raw milk proponents, including Liz Reitzig, Mark McAfee, and Sally Fallon, among others, had testified forcefully on behalf of legislation that would legalize herdshare arrangements in a state that has steadfastly refused availability of raw milk in any way, shape, or form. (The testimony can be viewed online; the proponents begin at the 29-minute mark, the opponents at the one-hour-45-minute mark.)
After the proponents were done, Katherine Feldman, state public health veterinarian for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, testified that illnesses from raw milk are twice as common in states that allow the sale of raw milk versus those that prohibit it. “Pasteurization is a triumph of public health,” she said. She cited several outbreaks, in Alaska (from last year) and California (from 2006). She referred to a child being sickened after being given milk at a friend’s house.
Laurie Bucher, chief of the Maryland department’s Center for Milk Control, picked up from Feldman without losing a beat. “No matter how careful the farmer is…. it is impossible to ensure pathogens will be absent from milk.” She pointed to a Pennsylvania study showing “5 to 20% contamination” of raw milk. She said that the Family Cow dairy has had three outbreaks in the last two years, with “huge financial costs to the farm.” She added, yet again, there have been “two deaths and thousands sickened from consuming raw milk products.”
Diana Elizabeth Adeney, a county public health official and pediatrician, said that in her experience 75-80 per cent of illnesses from raw milk affect children and teens (those under 18 years old). She, like the others, went down the list of organizations that recommend against raw milk—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and so on and so forth.
But before the air could completely leave the room, a number of legislators began asking tough questions, and raising objections. I couldn’t identify them from the video, but at least half a dozen raised sharp objections to the public health testimony. Here are some examples:
—“What illnesses could occur from raw and undercooked beef and chicken?” a legislator asked. He wanted to know if these were the same pathogens that can taint raw milk.
Feldman said the pathogens are the same, but that raw milk sickens more children as a percentage of illnesses than do other foods.
—“In only eight states is raw milk illegal,” a woman legislator observed. “We’ve had 36 witnesses today. This bill keeps coming back over and over….It is time for you to sit down with all these stakeholders and come up with some kind of plan” to allow raw milk.
Feldman said, “We are always happy to sit down and discuss these issues….” But you could tell her heart wasn’t in it when she added that “We are looking for scientific evidence….” to support raw milk safety.
—“Do we have scientific studies on everything before we can eat it?” a legislator followed up. “You said we need clear scientific studies to determine that raw milk is safe.” There was hemming and hawing by the public health people, but no clear response.
—The same legislator observed: “We are talking about a 13-year period, two deaths in a 13-year period…In the grand scheme of things….two people in 13 years is not significant….When I look at this data, there is nothing here.” Feldman hemmed and hawed some more. “Death is not the outcome we are talking about.” (I could have sworn she and others referred a number of times to the danger of dying from raw milk.)
—Another legislator questioned the public health people about their assertion of many raw milk illnesses in neighboring Pennsylvania. “You said there were hundreds of illnesses in Pennsylvania….between 2005 and 2013 there were 17 outbreaks from salmonella, not hundreds….I am wondering where you got hundreds.” Feldman responded, “I’m sorry….17 is a lot.”
I took several messages from the sharp questioning coming from the legislators.
1.The politicians are beginning to become informed about this issue. They aren’t blindly accepting the assertions from on high by the “scientists” as gospel. This is almost certainly occurring because they are hearing from their constituents that raw milk and food rights is something increasing numbers of people care deeply about.
2. The public health people are going to have to clean up their act. They are going to have to do less fear mongering and more serious interpretation of their data. (Though that does present a problem, since the data, when annualized and otherwise made more understandable, become much more benign.) They may even, imagine this, have to sit down face to face and have serious discussions with ordinary people who are demanding access to a particular food, as in Maryland.
3. Finally, we saw first-hand the need to bring up the same legislation repeatedly, even if it is defeated on initial go-rounds. A couple of Maryland legislators were clearly frustrated as they asked the obvious question: Why is this legislation continually being proposed, with lots of public support, and then defeated, on a regular basis?
I still wouldn’t bet on the Maryland proposal for herdshares being passed and signed into law. There are huge obstacles in its path, including committee chair people and a governor who don't want to endanger campaign contributions from Big Ag and assorted health and medical organizations. But we heard for one of the first times some serious questioning of whether the emperor is wearing clothes. Crying wolf inevitably wears thin.
For more information about the Maryland hearing, take a look at activist Liz Reitzig's report. She's been leading the effort to make raw milk available in Maryland for some years now, and helped organize proponents for the Tuesday hearing.