“This [raw milk] debate has reached the point where the opposing sides are irrevocably dug in and equally unmovable in their convictions. Neither side will back down, and neither side is willing to look for compromise. While one has to respect the passion and the conviction of the opposing forces one also has to recognize that this situation has all the makings of continued anguish and wasted energy.”

A pretty good assessment of where things stand, I’d say. What’s intriguing about this analysis is that it comes from a former high-ranking official of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the Bush Administration for six years. Even more intriguing is that the former official, David Acheson, uses that introduction to come out in favor of not only an end to the hostilities on raw milk, but of FDA involvement in helping develop “agreed standards for raw milk production.”

The statement actually came out three weeks ago as a posting on the blog of Leavitt Partners, a health care and food safety consulting firm launched by the former Secretary of Health and Human Services. It hasn’t received any attention that I’m aware of, until a tweet began making the rounds earlier today.

Acheson further stated in the posting: “Let us accept that raw milk consumption is here to stay–legislating against it will drive it underground and thus magnify any dangers associated with consuming that commodity. Instead, I advocate devoting the energy that abounds in this argument to setting agreed standards for raw milk production. There is copious science to indicate how to minimize the likelihood of microbial contamination of milk (note I say minimize and not eliminate). Appropriate management of the farm, the dairy cattle, the procedures, the containers, the storage and the shelf life of the product can all be effective controls and should all be used in conjunction with each other. Dare I even suggest that FDA could actually be a knowledgeable contributor to this process?”

Thems is radical words coming from someone so recently high ranking at FDA, and on top of everything else is a physician. Dr. Acheson arrived at the FDA in 2002 as the Chief Medical Officer in its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). In January 2004, he was named Director of CFSAN’s Food Safety and Security Staff. In May 2007,  Dr Acheson was appointed as the Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection to work directly with the commissioner on food safety. In January 2008, he was named Associate Commissioner of Foods, which provided him an agency-wide role for all food and feed issues, including health promotion and nutrition.

The post is well worth reading, in part for its argument that the raw milk conflict will have no winners until the government begins to accept the reality of raw dairy’s presence. “The battle over raw milk will continue to result in a public health stale mate until the intellectual capital of those involved in the argument move to a different level and look for collaborative solutions not confrontational ones. Confrontation will never succeed in this argument, but collaboration could not only be constructive but actually make the product less of a public health hazard–which after all is my goal as a public health professional.”

It can be argued that Acheson lacks authority to implement change. But knowing how these things work, I have to think he wouldn’t have gone public on such a controversial matter without at least some grudging approval from former cronies still at the FDA. Because his consulting firm likely depends for its business at least in some measure on its ongoing connections at the FDA, I doubt the firm would have allowed the post had there been huge resistance. It could be that this is a trial balloon. Or even a first effort at reconciliation. Of course, it’s always possible it’s just the statement of a lone wolf, but I highly doubt it.

What’s encouraging is that Dr. Acheson seems oriented toward focusing on the kind of safety standards  any number of people on this blog, like Tim Wightman, Mark McAfee, Bill Marler, Concerned Person, Lykee, Steve Bemis, WI Raw Milk Consumer, and Scott Trautman, have been advocating. Moreover, the discussion seems to be encouraging reasonable safety standards as opposed to limited access, and some degree of collaboration as opposed to ongoing battle.

In the same spirit, I hope Mary Martin and Mark McAfee are able to make further headway in their discussions on a common approach to raw milk safety.  
Broken DATCP seal on a freezer at Vernon Hershberger’s Grazin’ Acres farm. (Photo courtesy of Max Kane) Wisconsin dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger cut the yellow crime-scene tape and undid the seals covering his fridges and coolers, and announced himself open for business today. Dozens of consumers and a handful of area dairy farmers raced to his farm in Loganville, about an hour west of Madison, Thursday morning to show support in the event agents from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection showed up. They didn’t.

All this a day after regulators spent more than five hours conducting an inventory of food at the farm, all in connection with the dairy’s practice of distributing raw milk to more than 100 regular customers.

It’s what happens next that is very important. Consumers and farmers need to be prepared to show ongoing support to Hershberger, perhaps on quick notice. Other farmers may need to take the same action should the agents show up at their farms. DATCP may need to decide if it’s going to use force against rebellious farmers, and whether it can handle growing numbers of brush fires. Consumers may need to decide whether they are willing to risk arrest standing up for dairy farmers. Decisions, decisions. That’s what civil disobedience is about.

DATCP seals on coolers at Grazin’ Acres.

The Minnesota Department of Health appears to have closed the loop in its case against Michael Hartmann’s raw dairy in Minnesota. The agency announced today that its inspection of the dairy last week yielded the same E.coli 0157:H7 that sickened five people.

I’m not sure what happens next. If Hartmann was being treated the way other farmers are treated when foodborne illness is discovered in their products, he’d presumably need to demonstrate that his product was free of pathogens before being allowed to distribute his product again. But as we know, raw milk tends not to get the same treatment.

As lawyer Bill Marler put it on his blog yesterday, in a post headed “Is Raw Milk Treated Unfairly?”: “But the problem here is that I do believe there’s a double standard. Why is raw milk emphatically criticized when it causes illness while some lettuce producers are allowed by public health officials to escape public scrutiny when their contaminated product has caused illness?”

But almost as if to contradict that reasonable question, Marler headlined his posting about the Hartmann dairy findings: “E.coli test match on Hartmann Dairy Farm–the nail in the coffin of raw milk?” I highly doubt it. The fact is that it’s a very unfortunate situation, for all concerned. I hope the sickened individuals recover well, and I hope Michael Hartmann figures out exactly what led to the presence of E.coli 0157:H7 in his milk after many years without a problem–whether, as Violet Willis suggests following my previous post, it was a problem from introducing a new animal to the herd, or something else.