Can Debate Over Raw Milk and Food Rights Move Beyond Stereotypes?


Holding onto expectations can be a setup for disappointment. 

You start exercising, expecting you will improve your health, and instead you sprain an ankle and are out forced off your feet for a couple weeks, getting even more out of shape. 

You go on a diet expecting to lose 20 pounds in two months, and when you only lose 5, you feel badly. 

You try to apologize to someone you insulted, and instead of being welcomed for your humility as expected, you are rejected of hand. 

The list of ways in which our expectations can be dashed is endless. 

I know some people here were expecting good feelings and mutual enlightenment from the engagement here with public health people, as a result of my previous post….for example, with the food safety professors, Don Schaffner of Rutgers and Ben Chapman of North Carolina State University. After a couple days, several here indicated their frustration, and disappointment, when the dialog didn’t go as smoothly as they might have expected. 

If you take away the expectations, things often look different, and more encouraging. I’d just like to say I appreciated Schaffner’s comments following my previous post—not so much for anything specific he said, but for the fact that he was willing to sincerely engage, discuss, even mix it up with some of the readers here.  That he didn’t throw his hands in the air when the discussion frustrated, swear he was done trying to communicate with the wackos here (as some have done in the past) was important, and appreciated. 

It all gets back to expectations. I’m not sure exactly what will result from the dialog on this blog, and in the hour-long podcast interview I did with Schaffner and Chapman. It could be that it leads to some kind of panel discussion at an industry trade show or health organization event on how to build bridges.… or it could be that nothing happens for several years. 


Without getting myself bogged down in expectations, my prediction is that we’re more likely to experience the former outcome than the latter. 

The simple fact that a few people from the public health community around the country have begun what I referred to as very preliminary negotiations over raw milk standards, and are willing to let their preconceptions go long enough to engage in various ways—via the Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI), at a Pennsylvania sustainable food conference this past weekend, here in the last few days—is a change in atmosphere, no matter where it ultimately leads. 

A big part of any movement toward improved understanding will require letting go of stereotypes. Both sides in the struggle over food rights have created their share of stereotypes. The public health agents as heartless enforcers of food regulations is one type of stereotype.

I came across some other ones recently, in a new book by New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear, Anything That Moves. It includes a chapter, “The Rawesome Three”, about the events around Rawesome Food Club. It is based heavily on an article she did for the New Yorker in 2012, with a similar title. 


The book chapter is a more personal account of her investigation of the Rawesome events (which are also heavily covered on this blog and in my book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights). It is engaging and entertaining reading. Two anecdotes in that book chapter are worth noting, since they contribute to stereotypes. 

First, Goodyear recalls attending a 2011 conference in Las Vegas sponsored by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which I was at as well. “I kept looking for signs of the culture clash between the raw-milkers and the antigovernment extremists, but I couldn’t get purchase.,” she states. “The raw-milkers claimed to be on board with everything, from putting a stop to roadside sobriety tests to ending seat-belt laws.” The imagery was clear: the raw milk supporters attending the conference were a bunch of libertarian antigovernment nut cases.  

I was at that conference, spent a lot of time hanging around with people Goodyear identifies, like Rawesome owner James Stewart and food rights lawyer Ajna Sharma-Wilson, and heard little discussion about the politics of “the antigovernment extremists.” People were pretty preoccupied just getting to know some of the sheriffs, and seeking out tips on how they could protect their farms and food clubs from ever-more-aggressive government raids. (Goodyear also quotes Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures, Michele Jay-Russell of the University of California at Davis, and me in the same chapter.)

Second, Goodyear recalls attending a “Primal Diet Potluck”, a raw-food get-together sponsored by the late Aajonus Vonderplanitz in Los Angeles—to visit with existing clients and attract new ones. Goodyears says Vonderplanitz “introduced me to his friends, two heavy-browed body-building brothers in their twenties and the 19-year-old girlfriend of one of them, who was a personal trainer. They told me that, on Vonderplaintz’s recommendation, they had started eating rotting meat, though it was sometimes hard to do…I let that sink in for a second: these middle-class kids were deliberately eating like the survivors of an apocalypse.” 

The end of the anecdote has Goodyear reacting to Vonderplanitz questioning her as to why she wasn’t eating any of the raw food at the event. “ ‘Are you in any way connected with any government agency?’ he asked. I reassured him, breathing through my mouth, that I was not, and got out of there before I embarrassed myself by throwing up all over the faux fur” on the couch. The underlying message? Vonderplanitz’s views on food were totally bizarre, hence Rawesome Food Club, which he had promoted, was equally bizarre. 

Now, I attended one of Vonderplanitz’s potlucks, and didn’t meet anyone eating rotten meat. I recount in my book that, while Vonderplanitz made some outrageous statements, as was his tendency, the people I spoke with who consulted with him about nutrition felt their health had improved eating such items as raw fresh meat, raw milk, butter, and various fermented foods. Did he sometimes suggest rotten meat to certain clients? Yes. But I never got the feeling he did it all that often. 


Unfortunately, Goodyear took the always-tempting journalistic route of seeking out the most outrageous scenes or events, and suggesting they were the norm. That’s how stereotypes are created. 

Hopefully, individuals on both sides of this struggle over food rights will begin to see through the stereotypes. Discussing and debating issues tends to do that to people. 

13 comments to Can Debate Over Raw Milk and Food Rights Move Beyond Stereotypes?

  • dschaffner
    Nice post, David. I appreciate your perspective. I hope your prediction of “some kind of panel discussion at an industry trade show or health organization event on how to build bridges” comes to pass. It’s too late this year’s for IAFP, but count me in as a potential panelist for a roundtable at IAFP 2015 in Portland, Oregon. Weird Portland might be the perfect venue.
  • Don,

    I think a panel discussion would be valuable. It should followed by a published proceedings or review of the complete literature on raw milk – no cherry picking of data or selective citations of that literature. I would be happy to assist in this effort.

    Now here is another thought from your “raw milk drinking colleague next door”:

    To draw an analogy from the history of the organic farming movement, in the 1970’s the USDA ignored organic farmers until Secretary of USDA Bob Bergland who was also a farmer had a neighbor farming organically. So it was an across the fence conversation that got the talks and surveys started between USDA and the organic community. In 1980, the USDA published its report and recommendations on organic farming:

    From the forward of that document replace or the word “organic” and think “raw milk”:

    We in USDA are receiving increasing numbers of requests for Information and advice on organic farming practices. Energy shortages, food safety, and environmental concerns have all contributed to the demand for more comprehensive
    information on organic farming technology.
    Many large-scale producers as well as small farmers and gardeners are showing interest in alternative farming systems. Some of these producers have developed unique systems for soil and crop management, organic recycling, energy conserva tion, and pest control.
    We need to gain a better understanding of these organic farming systems the extent to which they are practiced in the United States, why they are being used, the technology behind them, and the economic and ecological Impacts from their use. We must also identify the kinds of research and education programs that relate to organic farming.

    As we strive to develop relevant and productive programs for all of agriculture, we look forward to increasing communication between organic farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    Now some words from organic farming pioneer J.I. Rodale:
    “It is not organic to produce milk organically, and then to pasteurize it.” (Rodale, 1958)

    J Heckman, Professor Soil Science, Rutgers U.

  • For further information on the history of the organic farming movement:

    Heckman, J.R. 2006. A History of Organic Farming: Transitions from Sir Albert Howard’s War in the Soil to USDA National Organic Program. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. 21:143-150.

    A longer version of my organic history article was published by Wise Traditions:

  • Don,
    Here an interesting line from the history of International Association of Food Protection: “Nevertheless, the Annual Meetings continued to emphasize the healthfulness of dairy products, their importance as foods for adults as well as for children and infants, and the need for laws providing for pasteurization of all milk and cream unless it was known to be from a certifiably safe source.”
    Also interesting is that the certified milk (meaning clean raw milk) movement began in New Jersey with the establishment of the Medical Milk Commission by Dr. Henry Coit MD. Link to history: Hospital Delivers Certified Milk
  • Shawna Barr
    I am a big fan of the “across the fence” discussions. It is much easier to recognize one another as human beings, put away stereotypes, extend the benefit of the doubt, and respond with gentleness and generosity. We’ve personally benefited from such exchanges. One happened between our sheriff and us…who happened to be at that Sheriff’s convention! We invited him to visit our farm and see first hand how a herdshare worked. He stayed for two hours and seemed to wish he didn’t have to leave. And we enjoyed him and understand better now the challenges of his job. And he understands the issues that surround the private ownership of livestock. (And just to keep from looking like weirdos, we refrained from serving him rotten meat….in the spirit of ettiquete and good diplomacy of course.)

    Likewise, I’ve had the priviledge of dialoguing with Food Safety scientists who I’ve chosen to believe were not “heartless enforcers” out to get us. I’ve been proven correct. These one-on-one conversations, especially those that happen in person on the farm, go a long way to build understanding of the issues by all parties. I think we are all richer for it.

    I’m planning to visit my visit my first food safety lab in a couple of weeks. I look forward to getting a glimpse into this world and better understanding for those who devote their lives to this work.

    Make friends, be nice, listen more, and stay humble as there is always something we can learn from one another. Social media can be useful for discussion starting, but it will never replace the humaness of face-to-face.

  • mark mcafee mark mcafee
    Love this conversation!!

    Just got word that the Maryland raw milk discussion is going in an interesting direction.

    Maybe a working group recommendation coming out of the committee??? This is a long road to get to raw milk, but it is a worthy road. I strongly suggest a short term working group of one year with a “raw milk pilot project” for the working group to oversee. I would be super happy to provide that working group with a Custom RAMP plan for the pilot project that would blow away the FDA and their love of HACCP. Nothing like a little data and some local success to make our case about the safety of raw milk!!

    Even though I know that most of the supporters of raw milk in Maryland want a hands off approach, Maryland is “FDA country” and I seriously doubt that is going to happen. Maryland is where the people should commit to showing the FDA and the state of Maryland how raw milk can be done best!!


  • ingvar ingvar
    God bless your enthusiasms, Mark Mcafee.
  • Deborah - Pacifica
    While in Boise, ID this week, I had the yummy opportunity to being introduced to this wonderful farm, Natural Farm Fresh, & having their raw milk. I love how they have their website & the information that they have on it…. Their products are available at a number of natural food stores in the Boise & surrounding areas, so access is very convenient, plus there is home delivery available as well. It is not too easy in my travels to come across something like this, let alone being able to buy raw milk in each place that I travel to, so this was a wonderful & rare opportunity for me this week.
  • Shelly-D.
    Speaking of panel discussions, this may be of interest:

    University of Guelph, “Science to Policy Symposium”

    ” The goal of the conference will be to engage in discussions on the need for a structured and transparent process, to ensure that scientific research and knowledge are used to enable effective policy decisions. We are engaging a wide spectrum of global experts, who will use current policies relating to raw and pasteurized milk as the exploratory case study.”

    It will include a panel discussion.

    I do wonder about the keynote speaker and her topic – Lydia Medeiros and her “Behavioural Belief of Consumers” – We’ve seen far too much disrespect from researchers who treat us like microbes and with just as much respect as they’d treat a one-celled animal, putting us under their magnifying glass to study us. Check out every study of “raw milk consumers” and you’ll see how they analyze us in detail in order to find ways to convince us to not drink raw milk, but I bet they never disclose this agenda to their subjects (and note, I’m not using the term “participants” because they don’t want us to “participate,” they want us to obediently just give them what they want, benefiting them with nothing of benefit for us in return). What is Medeiros’ approach?

  • Ken Conrad Ken Conrad
    Shelly, you’re wise to be apprehensive.
    Guelph University is a pro GMO institution that has primarily preoccupied itself to date with conventional scientific research.

    When they call me, which is about 2-3 times a year, looking for donations I explain to them that their position and failure to take a proactive stand on gmo’s, pesticides, herbicides and raw milk consumption, are some of the main reasons why I refuse to donate to their biased endeavors.

    Considering their list of “all interested parties” it doesn’t appear that raw milk consumers and dairy farmer such as Michael Schmitt will have an opportunity to take part in the conference.

    Their focus on risk mitigation and communication leaves me gravely suspect of their motives.


  • D. Smith D. Smith
    This is OT, I know, but since Valentine’s Day is coming up fast, I thought some of you would be interested in this information. You might wanna re-think that beautiful bouquet of flowers, unless you grew them yourself. *This is not a joke*.

    Told my DH to skip the flowers. I’ll settle for a nice, quiet game of cribbage and a bottle or two of Erdinger Hefe-Weizen or the Hefe-Weizen Dunkel.

  • null.set
    Benjamin Franklin said “Parley, parley, parlez” …. the way to find out Medeiros’ approach, is : go there and listen to what she has to say. Then engage her with what we are saying. The event in Guelph = from Science to Policy” = will be THE cutting-edge of the whole shebang. If they’ll sit still for it, skeptics will get an ear-full from genuine experts, like Michael Schmidt and Nadine Ijaz

    harkening~back to what was in vogue in the salad-days of hepcat OraMousse … “be there or be square”

  • Great post. I’m experiencing some of these issues as well..

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