A few readers have raised simple, innocent questions about the California assault on raw milk that boil down to this: Why are the authorities coming down do hard on a few oddballs producing and drinking unpasteurized milk?
“What is the big deal about people buying raw milk?…What is it that I am not comprehending?” asks Maggie in a comment on my Tuesday posting.
The questions are not unlike what the residents of the original thirteen colonies must have asked about their British masters. “We’re all British. Why are they imposing these crazy rules about taxation and trade on us, confiscating our guns, searching our homes?”
I put Maggie’s questions to Pete Kennedy, a lawyer for the Weston A. Price Foundation, a man in the middle of many of the state and federal cases involving raw milk and, as he sees it, us few oddballs are perceived as a much larger threat than we realize. “It’s like an undeclared war,” he says.
Here are the major underlying forces in that war:
Exploding demand for raw milk. While those of us who value raw milk as an essential part of a healthy diet may see ourselves as just a few oddballs, in actuality the demand is growing like wildfire. No one knows how many people consume raw milk—Sally Fallon of the Weston A. Price Foundation has estimated it as upwards of half a million—but increasingly farmers who sell directly to consumers are producing at their capacity, and turning away new customers. So if you have a regular supplier of raw milk, consider yourself lucky.
Shifting government tactics. For many years, the federal and local authorities relied on stoking the public’s fear of disease to keep people away from raw milk—putting a damper on the demand side of the equation.
But as increasing numbers of people learn how remote the risks associated with drinking raw milk really are in today’s world, consumers are ignoring the authorities. Indeed, the government warnings seem only to stimulate further demand. “So instead of trying to control the demand, the government is trying to control the supply,” says Kennedy, by harassing farmers so they’ll hopefully become discouraged and go back to the pasteurization routine.
Federal coordination behind the scenes. Kennedy sees the latest assault against raw milk in California as part of a national effort, likely coordinated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “They’ve come up with different tactics. For a while it was listeria. Now it seems to be coliform,” with California being the latest example.
Another part of the assault is to push states with tight regulations on raw milk sales to crack down as raw milk producers expand. Kennedy figures the FDA monitors the Weston A. Price Foundation’s web site directory of raw milk producers, and pushes states to crack down when activity expands.
The latest example is occurring in Missouri. If you look at the realmilk section on Missouri, you’ll see there are about forty producers listed. To the FDA, this is a situation getting out of hand, so the state’s agriculture authorities have presumably been urged to get on the case.
Kennedy says at least half a dozen raw milk dairies have received warning letters from the Missouri State Milk Board telling them they need to obtain permits—after years of ignoring the direct-from-farm sales. But obtaining a permit requires investing significant dollars in a bottling operation, which most raw milk producers can’t afford to do.
These explanations of what is happening still don’t answer the underlying question: Why are they doing this to us?
And here, Pete doesn’t have hard answers. He suspects it comes down to economics, much as it did in Revolutionary War times, and as it does so often today. While raw milk sales are miniscule compared to pasteurized milk sales, the farmers selling raw milk are demonstrating a new dairy farming model that is very appealing to other farmers.
“Raw milk is the gateway to farm prosperity,” he says. Not only can the milk be sold for more than double, and sometimes triple or quadruple, the price paid by dairy cooperatives for milk to be pasteurized, the spinoff products like kefir and yogurt are even more profitable.
Pete suspects the situation will get worse before it gets better. He thinks other states are going to crack down on raw milk. A key to reversing the situation will be to win a court case like that involving Barbara Smith, the New York farmer challenging the state’s crackdown on her herd ownership arrangement, and take such arrangements outside the purview of state and federal regulators. (To contribute to the legal effort, join the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.)
In 1776, the British empire looked every bit as formidable as the corporate-government empire that continues to tighten its grip of our food supply. The colonists eventually fought a guerrilla war to throw the bums out. We won’t take back our fundamental right to obtain the foods we want via that kind of war, but rather by another kind of guerrilla war—class action suits, court challenges, street protests, resisting farmers, and eventually by overwhelming the system with so much demand that the bureaucrats and elected officials will have to inform their corporate masters there is no choice but to back off and accept the will of the people.