The public health profession is terribly inept when it comes to public communication. Some of the problem–the tendency to talk in “scientific” terminology and to limit public access to information–stems from ignorance about how to communicate with the public. But some of it is more devious, and stems from a desire to control and confuse.  

Two current examples make my point. 

The situation with Tennessee’s reporting about the the McBee Farm is one example of communication ignorance. It took science researcher Michele Jay-Russell to report in a previous comment on how she tracked down a press release from Tennessee public health officials by going to the agency’s Twitter feed and finding it there among the various tweets the agency put out. (She also provided a clear explanation about how DNA from shiga toxin creates health problems.) Is relying on Twitter, which many people don’t use, a reasonable way to keep people informed about what is supposed to be an important public health situation? 

Move from Tennessee to Massachusetts, and the Foxborough campaign to put Lawton’s Family Farm out of business, and you have more of the deviousness element. I finally got to speak with Foxborough’s health director, Pauline Clifford, and she portrayed the proposed regulatory changes against Lawton’s Family Farms as a matter of “taking the minimum standards (of the state) and tweaking it up.” In other words, no big deal. 

When I pointed out that the change to weekly testing from monthly seemed more than “tweaking”, she expressed surprise that was in the proposed town regulations, indicated she wasn’t sure the changes went that far. And what about the requirement that the town have access to the customer lists? “We can talk about that,” she said, presumably referring to the upcoming board of health meeting on Monday evening. “I guess people are upset about that.” Yes, they are, and apparently Clifford has been hearing from them. 

She said the town was prompted to propose the new standards following on two instances since last April when Lawton’s Family Farm was “out of compliance” with state testing standards. She says she was concerned that the farm’s customers weren’t properly notified, and when she inquired of Terri Lawton, was told only that the compliance issue “was posted in the barn.” She said she was concerned that customers who had the milk that was out of compliance needed to be informed not to drink what they had purchased (though there was never any evidence of pathogen contamination). 

Terri Lawton, who runs the farm, told me that not only was the compliance information posted in the barn, but emails were sent to all customers. Moreover, these actions were above and beyond anything required by the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources, which has responsibility for overseeing raw dairies in Massachusetts. She speaks with the voice of authority, having been a dairy inspector for MDAR for two years. 

Even more misleading information has been communicated by the town to the public. An article in the local paper, the Foxboro Reporter, quoting a member of Foxboro’s Board of Health on the new regulations, was full of inaccuracies, really, misinformation. 

In that article, Eric Arvedon, a member of the Foxborough Board of Health, makes a number of statements that are flat out false. Here are several examples, quoted from the article: 

*”He said 30 states do not allow sale of raw milk and cheese products…” This is completely untrue. There isn’t a single state that bans raw milk cheese sales–these are allowed by the U.S. FDA–have been since the late 1940s, so long as they are aged 60 days. While there are 17 or 18 states that ban public sale of raw milk,  even most of these states (like MI, WI, OH, VA) allow herdshare arrangements where customers buy part of a herd of cows and gain access to the milk. This makes raw milk more widely available than might seem at first glance. 

*”Less than half of the towns in Massachusetts permit such products.” Nearly all towns that banned the sale of raw milk did so in the 1950s and 1960s, when a number of state bans were going into effect as well. When towns want to allow raw milk sales, they usually find these bans and reverse them, like Framingham, in eastern Massachusetts, did in 2009. There are enough towns allowing the sale that between 27 and 30 farms selling raw milk around MA. 

*”Arvedon said the draft regulations ‘mirror current state regulations…’ This is a similar pronouncement to Pauline Clifford’s statement that Foxborough’s proposed regulation are just a “tweaking”– also completely untrue. The Foxboro draft regulations are much more strict than the state’s regulations, indeed, much more strict than regulations of ANY state in the country, as Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures pointed out in the comments.  

* “I have suggested that the BOH evaluate whether to continue to allow the sale of unpasteurized dairy products in Foxboro…” In other words, Foxboro’s Board of Health could vote on Monday evening to ban raw milk sales entirely. Foxboro has allowed the sales since time immemorial; Lawton’s started in 2005 or so, and there hasn’t been even a hint of illness; indeed, there are many more serious injuries and maimings on an average Sunday at Gillette Stadium, where the New England Patriots play football, within earshot of Lawton’s.

I can understand a problem of information dissemination, like in Tennessee, since it likely isn’t badly intentioned. But Marlborough, MA, is on a path that any number of state and local public health bodies have taken, of disseminating patently false information, under the illusion of “scientific” pronouncements. These agencies hope people won’t notice, or if they do notice, won’t be informed enough to recognize the lies. 

If you are in eastern Massachusetts. try to make it to the Foxborough Board of Health meeting Monday evening, 7:45 p.m., at 8 Chestnut St. in the McGinty Room of the safety building/fire station in Foxborough. There is plenty of parking at a shopping mall across the street. Terri Lawton deserves your support.