I am away this week. Steve Bemis has written a guest blog post. Steve is a Michigan lawyer active in local agriculture and food-rights issues, and a member of the board of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. He comments here about the larger questions that rarely get addressed concerning food-borne illness.

You may be familiar with the elephant-in-the-living-room teaching moment.  The group leader helps to expose the “elephant” as the overwhelming previously-invisible presence influencing the group’s process.  It’s the assumption that noone speaks of either because it’s too obvious, or everyone believes it, or no-one wants to talk about it – usually, a combination.

One elephant in the raw milk discussion is this: why doesn’t everyone get sick when there is a cluster of apparently food-born illness?  Through studies which tilt heavily to the circumstantial and often far away from hard science, epidemiologists (usually over-worked and under-funded health department employees) wage an ex-post-facto effort to find a pathogen to blame.  This search is based on the premise that an external agent (germ) has invaded.  Other possible scenarios are given short shrift, and a more sophisticated understanding of how food-borne illness occurs, gets lost.

Assuming they conclude a pathogen was responsible, we may expect a snort from the invisible elephant: why didn’t everyone get sick?  Answering the elephant’s call is hindered by at least two factors. The first smacks of elitism:  my gut is healthier (or at least, different) than yours.  A second is the cornerstone beliefs of Western science and culture: science can find answers and we can fix almost any problem. Lost critical systems in your moon-mission?  No problem, we’ll bring you around the dark side and home again.  Indians bothering you?  No problem, John Wayne will fix things up.

Setting aside elitism, however, the question remains. Assume the majority of raw milk drinker guts are healthier and they don’t get sick in an outbreak, why is this?  At least one hypothesis suggests itself (unstudied as far as I know), namely through some unknown combination of factors, even some long-term raw milk drinkers will get sick.  The test for this hypothesis might be to feed the supposedly offending milk to a control population of non-raw-milk drinkers, and see how many of them become sick.  

Such studies have obvious ethical problems, typical in many human studies, although in at least one published incident report, regular drinkers of raw milk (presumably, pre-pasteurized) were shown to have significant antibodies to campylobacter and did not get sick. Another possibility is that the concentration of pathogens may vary greatly in a body of fluid, with greater concentrations possible in a given “slug” of product, thus upsetting even a healthy gut. 

It seems that medical researchers are beginning to creep up on these issues.  Recent suggestions that gut diversity is important to overall health have been escaping academia and the medical establishment. As well, there is the European study of children which showed significantly lower incidences of allergic reactions (hay fever, asthma) in those drinking raw milk.  Clearly more work is needed, and now appears to be under way as Western science attempts in its own way to isolate, quantify and thereby understand.

All food comes to us from the soil, through plants and animals.  So the analysis of gut health is far from simple.  The variables are likely infinite (not to mention the ethics of studies), and so to concentrate on one is myopic making little sense on the broad canvas of life.  Rather than militaristically targeting one “pathogen” after another — causing untold collateral damage in the process — it seems our challenge is to understand the wealth of diversity in which we live, to get the most healthful result by teasing out the best soil enrichment, plant selection, animal husbandry, and kitchen techniques for healthful eating and living.

I wonder as I watch my dogs supplementing their diet occasionally with rabbit and deer droppings–less so since beginning to feed them small amounts of raw meat and vegetables — or quenching their thirst from the well-used birdbath, how really important it may be to have a bit of dirt on one’s plate, or in one’s glass.  Indeed, if one lived, even today, in parts of the ancient world or in ayurvedic India, the elephant in the room (or, for that matter, the sacred cow) would not need a group facilitator to be noticed.