I’d love to be a fly on the wall at the annual performance review of John Sheehan, the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s division of plant and dairy food safety, America’s milk czar. But since the likelihood of that happening is much less than very unlikely, here’s how I’d imagine the conversation between Sheehan and Margaret Hamburg, the FDA commissioner:
Hamburg: So, John, I know you’re in charge of monitoring compliance with the PMO (Pasteurized Milk Ordinance). But all I keep hearing about is raw milk. You said here, in the goals you listed a year ago, that the “raw milk problem” would be on its way to being solved about now, that those “bandit” raw milk producers, as you referred to them, would be on the run, and within another year, raw milk would be nearly a distant memory.
Sheehan: Well, we’re working on it. You know, we did get a guilty plea on Organic Pastures Dairy Co., so it’s not shipping raw milk all over the country any more. That’s a lot of raw milk not going beyond California. We’re shorthanded on staff, as you know, but we have state ag people all over the country paying close attention. We’re telling them they better get on this, or they’ll see a drop in federal funding. Things are moving very well in Wisconsin. The dairy farmers selling raw milk are very much afraid. Kind of like shooting ducks in a barrel, one at a time, the guys out there tell me.
Hamburg: I don’t know, John. Everywhere I turn on the Internet and in the media, it seems there’s something about raw milk, and it’s almost never favorable to our side any more. Why, a couple years ago, it was just one blogger, some guy Gumpert, who seems obsessed about rights, and this Weston A. Price Foundation, which brags about the health claims, talking about it. Now my staffers are bringing me printouts from more and more bloggers focusing on raw milk (she shuffles through a stack of papers), Kim Hartke, David Augenstein, Bob Hayles, Bovine. And it seems like tweets about raw milk are darting around faster than hummingbirds. Cheeseslave, Farm-to-Consumer-Legal Defense Fund, on and on. Why, I see you’re even featured in some crazy book, The Raw Milk Revolution.
Sheehan: It’s all part of the plan, M’am. We’re trying to take a low profile. We don’t want to egg them on, even acknowledge them, give them more credibility than they should have, which is none.
Hamburg: Well, they don’t seem to be taking any notice of your low profile. Now they’re planning some big demonstration at a Wisconsin courthouse December 21, almost on Christmas Eve. And civil disobedience in Georgia. And a possibly raucus meeting in Framingham, Mass., next week at the local board of health on behalf of some farmer who wants to sell raw milk. I mean, we have a lot of other problems here at FDA, with drug approvals and H1/N1 vaccine, we don’t need people getting worked up over milk. I have to be candid with you, John, and you’re not going to like to hear this, but I have this bad feeling that not only is your plan not working, it’s doing the exact opposite of what you planned. More dairies are selling raw milk because they can’t make money selling milk for pasteurization, and more people are going out of their way to buy raw milk, and I see here, they’re paying sometimes $12 or even $16 a gallon. I mean, they’re willing to pay four or five times the price of milk in the Seven-Eleven or Kroger’s, and the milk isn’t even treated. Jeez, at those prices, I’m almost tempted to get into the business. John, this is getting away from you.
Sheehan: Yes, M’am. I think we need more agents, more budget.
Hamburg: That seems to be the answer I get for every problem around here. You guys must think we just print the money. Well, maybe over at Treasury, but not here. And what about your pals in Michigan, going along with some report that raw milk helps build immunity, and may counter asthma and allergies. I thought we were paying these people good money to cooperate with you.
Sheehan: That Michigan thing was most unfortunate, M’am. They are renegades, turncoats. I don’t even want to talk about it.
Hamburg: John, denial won’t help. We’re paying you to keep this situation under control, and it’s spinning out of control. And now I read about people being arrested in Missouri for selling raw milk in a parking lot after an investigation by undercover agents. John, we’re not the FBI or CIA, this is food we’re talking about.
And there’s some poor woman in South Dakota, (she shuffles through papers), Lila Streff, who wrote this terribly sad letter to some local paper.
I had tears in my eyes after reading her letter. She says your coolies at the South Dakota Department of Agriculture advised her to invest $85,000 to build a nice barn for her goats, so she’d comply with their regulations for producing raw milk. I had one of my staffers call Lila–John, the poor woman is now up to her neck in debt, and is selling maybe 35 gallons of raw milk a week. This isn’t Dean Foods or anything. She went and borrowed all this money, and now they’re trying to add new rules to the state’s dairy laws that would require her to invest thousands more in a bottling machine, and a separate additional new building, and put a wall between her kitchen and the barn. This all came about, she says, after she called the South Dakota Department of Agriculture to find out what the rules were, and they approved her.
Sheehan: Yes, M’am. These small farm people are tricky, they’ll do anything to make a few extra dollars.
Hamburg: It’s not like that, John. The staffer who spoke with Lila said she sounded like an honest farm woman. Didn’t know a lot about the regulatory and legislative process, just wanted to obey the rules, but now she is getting clobbered because she tried to play by the rules. She says she’s become cynical about the system. Says it feels like bait-and-switch to her. I’ll tell you, John, it sounds like bait-and-switch to me, too.
Sheehan: Yes, M’am…I mean, no M’am. We wouldn’t encourage bait-and-switch. This woman just didn’t read all the rules, didn’t investigate carefully enough.
Hamburg: That’s not what I’m told, John. I checked around at the South Dakota Dept of Ag and I was told there’s one guy in the department who is determined to make life difficult for hard-working people like Lila who sell raw milk. Says he wants to pass these new rules before he retires in a couple years.
Sheehan: M’am, we’re doing everything we can to discourage small dairies from producing raw milk. And if we have to move the goal post around a little bit, sometimes we do.
Hamburg: Once again, John, this whole business is making me nervous. I don’t like insurrection. Don’t even like the sound of the word. I have friends of mine in Rockville now telling me they’re drinking raw milk, getting it brought into Maryland from Pennsylvania, and they wonder why we’re spending time on keeping people from eating a basic food. Why the hell are we even worrying about this?
Sheehan: It’s a long story, M’am. Goes back many years. But I’ll tell you my view. It’s for the kids. It’s to keep little children from getting sick.
Hamburg: (Sighs) In that case, John, I’m with you. But you better come up with a better plan for dealing with this…or we may have to move you out of dairy and find a spot for you cleaning up in the monkey labs.
There’s some interesting new video of the great Georgia raw milk pour-out of last October. It was put together by Kristin Canty, a documentary maker, who’s working on a film about raw milk, “Farmegeddon”. The people being interviewed appear at once to be outraged and stunned by the craziness of the situation—that they were being forced to pour out milk they had already bought an paid for.