A sign posted at a farm store run by a C.A.R.E. buying club farm member. Been pretty quiet the last few days here in blogsville. Almost feels like a holiday or, more likely, lots of people are attending the Weston A. Price Wise Traditions conference near Philadelphia.

Indeed, the attendance this year was up more than 20%, to about 1,500 from 1,200 last year. Pretty amazing, when you consider that we’re in the midst of a recession, and the conference fees are not trivial ($400 for members, though the fee includes bountiful and delicious Weston A. Price-style meals).  I can tell you from hard experience that rooms with refrigerators are at a premium at these conferences; this year, I had a choice: a room with a window or a refigerator, but not both. I chose the latter.

A couple of food matters stirred up debate. First, raw milk (surprise!). Yes, even at a Weston A. Price Foundation event, there were complaints, and here it was about what some participants perceived as a less than consistent approach to the matter.

The organization had, until last year, been true to its heritage, serving raw milk and other dairy products from a number of farmers at meals, and allowing them to sell raw dairy products. But then last year in Chicago, WAPF pretty much avoided serving raw milk, apparently out of concern about violating Illinois and federal prohibitions (on the latter, over bringing raw milk in from, say, Wisconsin).

This year, in Pennsylvania, it allowed one dairy, Your Family Cow, to sell raw milk, and it served that dairy’s milk at some meals. But no other farmers–and several who produce raw milk were exhibiting at the show–could offer raw milk or other dairy products for sale. Moreover, no farms, including The Family Cow, were allowed to bring any other raw dairy products, such as yogurt, butter, and cream. The cream served at meals was pasteurized.

As one of the show’s organizers, Paul Frank, explained it to me, WAPF decided out of an abundance of caution that only dairies with Pennsylvania raw milk permits could sell milk. It limited Your Family Cow to milk only because the state’s raw dairy permits are limited to milk. The other farmers prohibited from selling raw milk or other dairy don’t have Pennsylvania raw milk permits, but rather sell only to members of food clubs, such as C.A.R.E.

“We were trying to protect these farmers,” Frank explained. “We didn’t think there would be any problem here at the show, but we didn’t want a situation where these farms had problems a few weeks after this show, because they sold milk here.”

Because the show is so huge, the farmers shut out weren’t happy. One told me that sales from raw dairy accounted for half or more of his revenues at past shows, so her wasn’t pleased about paying for a booth, and losing half his potential sales in the process.

The second issue that came up was concern about being caught in a government raid. Those fears were stoked by the screening of segments of Kristin Kanty’s documentary, “Farmageddon”. (There’s a new trailer that provides a flavor of the film.)

I moderated a panel discussion following the screening (including Kristin Canty, Gary Cox of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures, and farmer Linda Fallaice), which was attended by about 300 people. Most of the questions were about how to react during a government raid of a food facility, and what a farmer’s rights are. “You have the right to tell government agents to get off of your property,” said Gary Cox. And if they return with a search warrant, farmers and food club managers have the right to review the search warrant and hold agents to the limits of the warrant. Mark McAfee advised farmers to have video cameras at the ready to record every aspect of a government search.

A number of food club overseers told me they are screening prospective members very carefully, staying on the lookout for government undercover agents. One recalled to me how recently a motorcycle cop pulled up to her club’s dropoff point. “My heart stopped,” she said. Not to worry. It turned out he was there to pick up raw milk for his family.
Michael SchmidtCanadian dairy farmer Michael Schmidt has gotten a fair amount of attention for his refusal to allow an Alberta dairy farm into his new association of cowshares known as Cow Share Canada.

I caught up with him at the Weston A. Price Foundation conference, and he wasn’t the least bit regretful about his actions, which are at odds with the approach of some American raw milk supporters, who refuse to publicly criticize any raw dairies, even if they operate under questionable conditions. “I got flack from some free thinkers,” Schmidt told me. “They’re asking, ‘Are you the new milk mafia?'”

But without providing details of the problems he saw at the Alberta dairy in question, he argued, “This [letting the dairy join Cow Share Canada] will fly in our face if someone gets sick.”

This isn’t to say Schmidt has lost any of his passion to challenge government authorities on the raw milk obstacles. He last week issued something he called “The Edmonton Declaration”, which says in part:

“We have been battling the raw milk issue now for over 16 years. We have offered the Government more than once our cooperation to explore the legalization of raw milk. New hope arose for many after this years court ruling in Ontario, which recognized the right of educated and informed private individuals to opt out of the apparent responsibility of Government protection.

“Across Canada Provincial Health agencies are now cracking down on cow share operations.
Since it is deemed legal by the courts in Ontario there is no reason why other Provinces could not follow. I am calling on farmers and consumers alike to join in to openly challenge our bureaucrats and put our elected officials to task.

“I will be wherever there is help needed.
I will keep challenging unjust laws.
I will not rest until we have discovered once again our power to resist, to challenge and to stand on guard for Canada and it’s fundamental values of true freedom and responsibility.
I do not want to be asked by my grand children; why did you not prevent this dictatorship of thoughtless bureaucrats when you still could?”
While demand for raw milk climbs sharply around the country, much of the academic community remains mired in the muck. But there are some glimmers of enlightenment.

A new academic journal article examining a 2008 outbreak of illness from contaminated raw milk in Connecticut in which 14 people got sick, is predictable in its conclusion: “In states where pasteurization or a total ban on raw milk sale cannot be enforced because of the strong opposition of raw milk advocates, alternative control measures need to be implemented to protect public health.” Interesting that the authors fail to point out that the 2008 outbreak was the first in at least 15 years in Connecticut.

Even more interesting is a commentary on the study in the same journal by Michele Jay-Russell, a food safety expert at the University of California, Davis, whom I interviewed and quoted in my book, The Raw Milk Revolution. She says, “Despite a wealth of scientific data supporting the effectiveness of pasteurization in protecting the public from milkborne illness, there is a presumably small but vocal segment of the population that desires to consume raw dairy products. In lieu of bans, regulatory standards and education may be the best approaches to protect the public from exposure to contaminated raw milk. Regulations should include provisions such as pathogen testing, sanitation standards, and warning labels.”

And then this zinger for public health professionals: “In summary, it is important for health
professionals to educate themselves about the debate surrounding raw milk consumption
and be prepared to answer questions from the public about both safety and health benefit claims.”

Isn’t that a radical notion–public health officials educating themselves about raw milk and answering public inquiries in straightforward and honest ways.