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:
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.