No way around it, the issue of food rights, responsibilities, and standards is complicated when it comes to raw dairy. That helps explain why the discussion here sometimes exasperates.

It certainly helps to discuss the issue in terms of specific situations, because that is when the complexity becomes clearer. As one example–that involving the Hartmann Farm in Minnesota–I’ve found myself conflicted. I’ve had concerns about the Farm’s safety practices involving raw milk, based on the evidence put forth by the Minnesota Department of Public Health about matching pathogens on the farm and in customers who became sick. Yet I’ve strongly opposed the state’s efforts to infringe on the rights of Minnesota consumers seeking to buy the farm’s milk. It’s a tough situation to reconcile.

This past weekend, I had some discussions that helped me come at the matter from yet another vantage point. The discussions stemmed from an important action last May, when the board of Organic Valley voted to drop as members of its cooperative dairy those selling raw milk privately, beginning in 2011. One question that came up at the time was this: how was the huge cooperative going to enforce its new edict?

The enforcement effort is apparently well under way. The result is that some farmers are leaving the Organic Valley stable, while others are staying with the huge cooperative, and foregoing their raw milk sales in favor of the more predictable bulk sales of milk for processing.

At a conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s New York chapter in Saratoga Springs, NY, where Organic Valley was a major sponsor and donator of food, and I was a speaker, I met two employees of the cooperative who said they have been part of the enforcement effort.

David Hardy, an Organic Valley pooling coordinator, told me that in his territory of New York state, four or five dairies have “taken their signs down” advertising raw milk. Their decisions came after “discussions” he and the dairy owners had about Organic Valley’s new policy.

He explained the reasoning behind the policy as two-fold–that farmers have been using Organic Valley as a fallback while building their raw milk businesses and, as a result, have had ever less milk available to Organic Valley.

He said Organic Valley was willing to overlook sales to immediate neighbors, but won’t forgive dairies with farm stores selling raw milk to anyone who comes calling.

Peter Miller, Eastern regional manager, said he’s been focusing heavily on Pennsylvania, and there, the movement has been the opposite. At least five dairies have bid Organic Valley adios and either moved to exclusive sales of raw milk, or else taken up with another processor, which isn’t enforcing an exclusive arrangement.

He said Organic Valley has confronted a growing problem of milk “diversion”–raw milk that doesn’t make it onto Organic Valley trucks for processing because it’s being sold unpasteurized, or else used for making  cheese, butter, and other products. “We may have a commitment to a processor for 50,000 pounds of milk, and when we show up with 35,000 pounds, that’s a problem.”

Both men indicated that the raw milk issue was the most divisive in the cooperative’s 23-year history. But they also made clear that the decision was a business decision, having little or nothing to do with raw milk’s perceived risks or the wishes of regulatory authorities. They noted that probably all Organic Valley’s directors and executive board members are raw milk drinkers. Indeed, they expressed amazement when I told them about the recent declarations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that raw milk can’t be produced safely. “Well, I’ve been drinking raw milk a long time and I’m still here,” said Hardy. 

And therein lies a key point. Organic Valley is a cooperative, or collective, of dairy producers, and it has a set of strict production and other standards about to who can join and what they need to do to keep selling via Organic Valley. It has just decided at long last that one of its standards is that, to be a member, you can’t sell raw milk privately.

The decision has nothing to do with rights or with safety. It has everything to do with business, markets, and profits. Organic Valley made a business decision to close the door on becoming involved in marketing raw milk, and instead focus exclusively on pasteurized products. It was clearly concerned about the competition it was experiencing from raw milk (“diversions” are another word for competition, in this instance).

Equally important, Organic Valley made a business decision to use its size to force as many raw milk producers as possible out of business. (If you stay with us, you have to abandon the raw milk business.)
Organic Valley’s executives may not agree with the FDA’s reasons for coming down on raw milk, but the reality is they don’t care what the agency believes or doesn’t believe. As long as the FDA and state agencies come down on raw milk, they are serving Organic Valley’s business interests, and that is all Organic Valley cares about. As I said, for Organic Valley, it’s about market share and profit margins.

Remember, many of those customers and would-be customers Organic Valley most craves are existing or would-be raw milk drinkers. That’s why it sponsors events like the one I was at this past weekend, and has in the past been a major presence at the Weston A. Price Foundation (though it was absent from last November’s conference). And that’s why organizations like NOFA eagerly grab Organic Valley’s money and food “donations”.

You don’t think Walmart announced the lowered sodium and sugar levels in its food products last week because it cares about its customers’ health, do you? No, it saw its food sales leveling off, and the crazy growth of farmers markets and other good-food sources, and decided it needed to join the bandwagon and rah-rah for healthy food. And Michelle Obama took the unprecedented step of endorsing a major corporation’s marketing initiative because she wants Walmart and its suppliers to do well enough to create more jobs, which will help her old man get lots of corporate donations to win re-election. This is all about money, and the fact that there’s a shift going on in how people view food and health is reverberating in board rooms and political back rooms. Did someone mention rights? Ha ha.

It’s often said America has the best legal system money can buy. In the world of business, you gain rights and privileges according to how much financial influence you have. You need congressmen, senators? Those people are expensive. Food rights advocates can deluge them with all the phone calls and emails we want, but when push comes to shove, as it did in the U.S. Senate over S510 (the food safety legislation) in December, money ultimately speaks the loudest. Those companies and individuals who make large contributions call in their chits during such tough situations.

Same thing goes with insurance companies. To smy opin’s upset that Hawthorne Valley obtained insurance coverage for raw milk from Farm Family, and smy opin didn’t, I don’t know the particulars of the situation, but it could well be as smy opin speculated–Hawthorne Valley had more financial clout.

Part of where I’m going with this is that, say what you will about Organic Valley, but it has been very successful in using production standards and effective organization to carve out a new market (organic pasteurized dairy), and achieving serious clout. Legislators and regulators listen to what the organization has to say.

Raw dairy producers don’t need to emulate Organic Valley. The reality, though, is that organizing to establish safety standards for raw milk is in large measure a savvy business move. In answering the biggest objection put forth by the public health and regulator community, it not only does improve safety, but sends a powerful marketing and branding message.  In addition, by joining forces to guarantee their milk will meet certain standards, raw milk producers help create an organization that will grow and gain clout. There is power in unity and organization.

As I and others have said, you assert your rights via any number of avenues–in the courts, the legislatures, and in the marketplace. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund has begun the process in the courts. Even if it doesn’t win many cases initially, it has begun the long-term process of educating judges, and forcing regulators to undergo open questioning and cross-examination.

This is a long-term battle. The kinds of lofty goals Tim Wightman neatly articulated following my previous post about true sustainability for the sake of future generations are admirable. To gain the opportunity to implement such lofty goals requires first having some clout. I would say to lola granola that it’s an open field right now. The Weston A. Price Foundation definitely has clout, by virtue of having spent some years now assembling a membership in excess of 11,000, and that gives it an advantage, if its leadership chooses to get seriously engaged in the standards arena. Scott Trautman, the Wisconsin dairy farmer, has assembled a small core group of farmers and consumers who want to carry the safety and standards torch. As I’ve said, there’s nothing that says the arena is limited to one, two, or five efforts.

There’s absolutely no doubt that a huge market exists for raw dairy. Many raw dairies can’t produce enough product to satisfy the market. There’s also little doubt in my mind that sitting around agonizing about conspiracies and purity of motives is just another way of playing into the hands of competitors like Organic Valley, and government and medical community adversaries. It’s time to leverage the huge amount of clout that is waiting to be mobilized, and seriously fight back.   ?