Why this raw milk debate matters

In three weeks the state Department of Agriculture will decide whether to pass new language that would further restrict the already-restricted sale of raw milk in Massachusetts. Scott Soares, who heads the department, will make the decision after a single public hearing. If you care about access to real milk or if you care about access to real food at all, it’s important that you pay attention to this issue and even more important that you show up or make a fuss in some way.

The salient point about the raw milk proposal is that it would — and, in fact, already has — bust up or threaten organized raw milk buying clubs that, for a fee, safely shuttle raw milk from farms to consumers. (Read the proposal.)

Before it was even passed, the state sent cease and desist orders to four buying clubs. This month JustDairy, a club that was based on the North Shore, shut down after seven years of doing business. It was delivering (for a fee) raw milk from Massachusetts farms to more than 150 families. Mr. Tarzan, a buying club formed last year in Waltham, also stopped its milk sales. So did a grandmother in the Berkshires who had a local operation.

Winton Pitcoff, director of the Raw Milk Network at NOFA, told me he’s less resistant to the language in this proposal than he is to the intent. The language itself might not pose a threat to the informal groups, like the one we belong to — groups that take turns carpooling to the farm and essentially pick up milk for friends and neighbors. (i.e., Not for a fee.) Winton’s words: “The language doesn’t seem to prohibit small groups.”

Here another thing Winton told me, and this totally blew my mind: Everyone involved in the raw milk market in Massachusetts operates with the understanding that milk cannot legally be purchased anywhere other than the farm. This notion has been reported in the news, been dictated by farmers and buying clubs alike. However, it is not — I repeat NOT — written in law anywhere that raw milk must only be sold on the farm. It was just a suggestion, put down in a letter at some point by a state ag or state health official a few years back, and farmers have respected it all this time.

If farmers and consumers have been politely following this guideline, even though it isn’t codified, why does the state have to intervene suddenly? There has not been a single case of reported illness or mishandling or raw milk by Just Dairy or any casual buying group — ever. And, as Winton pointed out, there are no laws, or even suggested regulations, that prohibit people from buying other products that could pose a much greater public health threat than raw milk. For example, anyone could drive to the Cape and come home with a carload of shellfish. And shellfish, if not properly managed, can contain some pretty scary pathogens. Scarier than anything milk could generate. So why is milk being targeted?

I personally have a few theories. One, of course, is that the milk lobby is very powerful. Although these regulations are issued forth from public health departments and enforced by ag departments, we all know who sets the tone and agenda for public agencies: the businesses that buy and sell our elected leaders.

The industry can do an especially good job of assaulting the real milk market because there is a firmly entrenched and cultural tradition of MISinformation when it comes to milk, and its health benefits. We all take for granted that pasteurization is a good thing. But it was only ever a good thing because the quality of milk in the 19th century, during rapid urbanization and industrialization, was so woeful. Cows living in the city were being fed slop from local distilleries. Conditions were bad and people were getting sick. Sure, pasteurization improved that by killing harmful bacteria in the milk. But killed everything else in the milk too. And then it became instituted in places where the quality of milk was never a problem.

Last night I re-read the raw food chapter in Sandor Ellix Katz really wonderful book “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved.” Here are some the highlights:

  • Raw milk contains many enzymes, almost all of which are inactivated by pasteurization. One enzyme, lactase, digests lactose, the milk sugar that so many people can’t digest. That’s right: Pasteurization makes milk indigestible.
  • Calcium is rendered largely unavailable by pasteurization.
  • A lot of our pasteurized milk comes from cows that have been fed a growth hormone (rBGH). Even if you think you’re getting hormone-free milk, you might still be. Corporate owners just dump it all together from different cows and farms, don’t you know.
  • rBGH is banned everywhere in the world except the US, Mexico and Brazil.
  • Cows that have been fed rBGH often have infected udders, so the milk they produce is often part milk and part pus.

But about this raw milk proposal….

We have a set of public health and ag laws that pertain, exclusively, to the Dairy Industry. Buying clubs, formal and informal alike, make state agencies nervous because they don’t play by the rules. They don’t break the rules, it’s just that consumers of real milk are participating in an entirely different game. The same can be said about any of us who choose to unplug from the corporate industrial food complex. The trouble is, I guess, that our regulators are trying to apply the same rules to us. I am all for a safe and fair and healthy system, but a different game requires different rules.

After talking with Winton, it was clear to me that the most important thing we can do to fight this proposal, which essentially is a fight FOR access to real milk and against a corporate-controlled food industry, is to make an appearance at the May 10 hearing* and help provide a visual example of how many of us are plugged into this issue. You don’t have to stand up and talk. Just be there. And if you can’t be, send a letter to Scott Soares or call your state legislator, and get them involved.

Further reading on raw milk:

A message from NOFA on the proposed regulations
Two posts (One, two) on LocalIsBetter.org
More Dairies Go Raw” in the Globe, by Darry
Where to buy milk in Alex’s blog, Feed Me Like You Mean It

The hearing is on May 10 at 10 a.m. in Conference Room A on the second floor of 100 Cambridge Street, Boston, MA. Written comments will also be accepted up until May 10, and may be sent to Scott J. Soares, Department of Agricultural Resources, 251 Causeway Street, Boston, MA 02114.

11 comments

  1. Fantastic post. Insightful. Timely.

    I too would like there to be more transparency around MDAR’s upcoming attempted reg change. They know that selling raw milk is one of the few things a small dairy can do to actually be profitable these days. They are allies of small farms, in general. There haven’t been any problems.

  2. I applaud your argument, I however believe that the “safety and health” argument put forth by those against raw milk is fallacious. Any food mishandled will eventually become unsafe, even pasteurized milk; fortunately most of us can detect spoiled milk, a sip will usually suffice.
    The crux of the matter here is economic, a dairy farmer who depends on customers paying between $7-10/gallon in cash at the farm is no longer at the mercy of a processor who pays $1.00 a gallon,(below cost of production). An independent financially stable dairy farmer is a threat to the mega dairy processing industry. If today’s dairy behemoths could package “swill milk” as an enhanced dairy like drink product, it would be in every supermarket in the US.

  3. I don’t know why people have only been posting snail-mail contact info, but you can can also contact him at:

    617-626-1701 / scott.soares@state.ma.us
    … or even DM him … http://twitter.com/AgCommishSoares

  4. At a recent meeting that I attended which included Scott Soares andand 15 others, Soares claimed that it would be impossible to find and regulate those who pick up a gallon or two for their neighbor. But, if groups were found who took turns driving on a weekly or
    bi-weekly basis, they would receive cease and desist letters. Ultimately, unless you personally are at the farm and purchasing only milk for yourself, all buying groups are at risk.

  5. This is upsetting indeed. I sent an e-mail off to Mr. Soares, as I can’t be there on the 10th!

  6. I’m agnostic on the raw-milk question, but I don’t think it helps your case to make arguments like the rgbh one — it’s easy to find pasteurized milk that’s rgbh free — I think you’d have a hard time making a convincing argument that milk that’s clearly labelled as growth-hormone free somehow isn’t.

    There may (or may not) be a case to be made for raw milk, but it doesn’t make sense to resort to spurious arguments like this one.

  7. Great comments everyone, thanks.

    Al, many people who are otherwise not agnostic about what they choose to consume remain relatively ambivalent on the raw milk issue. I think this is fine, but I also think it is helpful (and necessary) to see the assaults on individual pieces of our food supply as they truly are: part of a whole. Likewise, the solutions must be holistic too.

    And hey, meat contaminated with e. Coli is labeled as USDA inspected! Our regulatory system has been proven, over and over again, to be impotent and/or controlled by industry. So while the rgbh case might not be the strongest *for* raw milk, I think it’s certainly an argument against the industry alternative. Which is, in a way of course, an argument for raw milk.

  8. Please continue to contact MDAR and your legislators about this proposal. Make it clear that any language that makes it illegal for any type of arrangement allowing someone else to pick up your milk is unacceptable. This proposal will hurt farms all over the state, at a time when they are already suffering greatly. Check out the NOFA’s official response at http://www.nofamass.org/programs/organicdairy/pdfs/MDARComment.pdf.

  9. ernie cranks

    It is well within the powers of the state to regulate the commerce of foodstuffs within its jurisdiction. This is old law, tested by the Supreme Court nearly 100 years ago. No one questions anyone’s right to DRINK raw milk–it is the commerce that is regulated. Want raw? Buy a cow and milk it, or go to the farm and buy it. Both are perfectly legal. Inconvenient, perhaps, but that an individual finds something inconvenient is hardly an argument against its constitutionality.

Leave a comment