Netflix has just come out with a beautifully filmed new documentary series on food, called “Rotten”. The premise of the six-part series is that in many food categories, there is a spoiler, someone or something that destroys what is otherwise a decent system.
For the troubled bee business, it’s “hidden additives, hive thefts, and other shady tactics,” says an intro. For the problems of a shrinking global fish industry, it”s “crooked moguls, dubious imports and divisive regulations.” And for the troubled dairy industry that is hemorrhaging family dairy farms? Here’s a hint: the “rotten” problem is not Dean Foods and a few other predatory corporate behemoths that drive prices down and competitors out.
Yes, you guessed it—the “problem” is raw milk. At least that’s what the film inexplicably concludes after meandering through the first 30 minutes arguing that it’s impossible for small conventional dairy farms to make a living any more.
The hour-long segment, “Milk Money”, features a couple people who are well known to bloggers here: Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures and Mary McGonigle Martin, the mother of Chris Martin, who became seriously ill from raw milk back in 2006.
Mark, Mary, and even Chris all come off as articulate and authentic in the documentary. All get lots of opportunity to express their views and feelings. Chris is shown both in an 11-year-old video of him in a hospital room hooked up to various breathing and feeding tubes, and today, as a strapping college student.
Unfortunately for the documentary, once the provocative old video is shown, the film’s message is pre-ordained, the “Rotten” of the title is clear as glass. McAfee is the villain, the personification of highly dangerous raw milk. Martin is cast as an unfortunate victim. And in an accompaniment, her son, now more than twice as old as the boy shown in the video in the hospital, winds up emotionally pleading for an end to Organic Pastures’ raw milk production, and presumably an end to all raw milk production in the U.S. The film’s producers ask McAfee what he thinks, and he is respectful, but says it’s impossible, that too many thousands of people want and need the unprocessed milk his dairy produces.
An unnamed public health “expert” of some sort plays a supporting role, reminding us that raw milk is terribly dangerous, and that there’s absolutely no evidence of it providing health benefits. The documentary’s producers accept that as truth, so there’s not a single mention of the large European studies documenting raw milk’s benefits in reducing asthma and allergies. Yes, there is an interview with a mom buying raw milk in Wisconsin who says a raw-milk-based formula helped her infant daughter overcome early nutrition problems. But that gets lost in the final assault on raw milk, as does McAfee’s openness and acceptance of the safety issue.
At one point, a narrator ominously states that Organic Pastures has more than $10 million in revenues (without pointing out that Dean Foods, a near monopoly on U.S. milk sales, had 2016 revenues of $7.7 billion.) For good measure, the only real safety-related statistic cited is the CDC’s highly questionable, but inflammatory, conclusion that raw milk is 150 times more dangerous than pasteurized milk.
Having seen this same plot line unfold in countless news articles and film productions, it’s clear to me that it can be no other way. Why? Because the media can’t resist the siren call of the blood and guts—the video showing the terribly sick little boy, the story of bloody diarrhea. It matters not that millions of people drink raw milk each day without illness of any sort. This 11-year-old example of a victim of unsafe food again takes center stage and is presented to invalidate any and all efforts, and there have been and are quite a few, to create wise legislation and regulations and safety standards.
I don’t blame Mary Martin for wanting to get her family’s story out there, even if it’s been out there for 11 years now. I blame the media for being unable to place this story into some context, and for wallowing in the hospital tubes and bloody diarrhea. Much in the mainstream media has shifted with the Internet, but not the ancient newspaper rule: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
It’s wearing thin on many consumers. Most of the nearly three dozen Netflix viewers who have thus far provided feedback give the series mediocre reviews. As one says: “I have watched the bee, nut, chicken and milk segments and don’t think I can continue…It’s like others on here stated—old news……The milk segment was the final straw….they are talking about the destruction of the family dairy and then switch to raw milk and how it kills people….wtf….nothing about the giant corporations and the friendly regulations that allow them to smother the small family farmer. They put this ‘scientist’ ?? on there talking about the dangers of raw milk, talking all negative about it…..so is the takeaway of this segment that we should stop drinking milk? We should drink more milk? We shouldn’t drink raw milk?…Hey, why not also stop eating spinach or any other food that has killed sickened people??? It’s like the writers ran out of stuff to talk about and just stuck stuff in to finish the segments….I am done with this series.”
But I’m afraid ordinary people have little to say. I see a burgeoning raw milk industry that will remain under attack for the foreseeable future, driven ever more underground. That way, there will always be enough sensational illnesses like that which hit the Martins. And the opponents can continue to claim that raw milk is inherently dangerous and should be banned, and feel virtuous in the process.