Back in August 2007 I wrote about how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration refused an invitation to participate in a Washington, DC, radio program promising a debate on raw milk. “This is not a debatable issue,” explained the FDA.

The FDA took the stonewalling approach to a new level today, when John Sheehan, director of the dairy division, canceled out at the last minute from speaking at a day-long symposium on raw milk sponsored by an industry group, the International Association for Food Protection. It had the catchy title: “Raw Milk Consumption: An Emerging Public Health Threat?”

He apparently also pulled about a dozen FDA officials who were signed up for the session. Two regional FDA reps who apparently didn’t get the word traveled in and attended the session.

The FDA’s withdrawal left the association officials doing a slow burn. “Sheehan called us last Friday and said he was unable to participate,” David Tharp, executive director, told me. What was his reason? “He was unable to participate…We were a little disappointed.”

I think that was an understatement. J. Stan Bailey, the IAFP’s president, was left to apologize to the group of about 40 industry, government, and Weston A. Price Foundation officials who had shown up, and paid more than $400 each for the privilege. “We lost a dozen people at the end of last week,” he explained lamely.

And Allen Sayler, an official of the International Dairy Foods Association and a moderator of the conference, was left scrambling over the holiday weekend to fill Sheehan’s prime time speaking slot immediately after lunch. “There weren’t too many people around,” he told me. He finally located two retired FDA officials.

One of them, Tom Schwartz, explained apologetically to the crowd: “I am here because Allen said, ‘Who can spell “milk”?’”

Here’s what seems to have happened: Sheehan apparently got wind that Sally Fallon of the Weston A. Price Foundation; Michael Schmidt, the celebrated Canadian raw dairy resister; and perhaps even yours truly, were going to be in the audience. There was some mention on a couple of blogs, and all of us were registered in advance. (Michael Schmidt and Sally Fallon are shown in the first row of the photo above, listening at the IAFP session.)

The fact that Sheehan didn’t show was a powerful statement, since Sheehan personally pulls the strings that control the actions of many dozens of dairy regulators, not only with the FDA, but with state agriculture agencies around the country. He’s “the decider,” and apparently decided he couldn’t handle the possibility of facing a tiny handful of raw milk proponents.

It’s too bad Sheehan didn’t show up, because he would have felt very much in his element.While the tone of the session may have been more conciliatory than Sheehan would have liked—a few of the speakers praised its “collegiality”—the speakers weren’t in anything like the compromising mood expressed in comments on my previous post, and nearly uniform in their condemnation of raw milk. For example:

–“When you look at the diseases that are possibilities (from raw milk)—not just a stomach illness…we’re looking at hospitalization and even death,” said Isabel Maples of the National Dairy Council. “All milk should be pasteurized.”

–“No matter what you do, you cannot produce a safe milk unless there is a kill step,” declared Pumendu Vasavada a microbiologist from the University of Wisconsin.

–If Rep. Ron Paul’s recently introduced legislation to legalize interstate shipment of raw milk were enacted, “There would be an increased risk throughout the country,” Adam Langer of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, told the audience.

–And at the conclusion of the session, the speakers gathered to answer questions, and engaged in a bizarro discussion in response to a question: “Are there other ways to make raw milk safer?” That brought forth suggestions about ultra violet treatment, and even filtration of bacteria from raw milk. “You could add back probiotic bacteria,” one speaker volunteered. There seemed zero appreciation that consumers of raw milk want it just the way it comes from the cow, period.

As I said, John Sheehan should have felt comfortable in this environment.

All the raw milk advocates were polite and conciliatory to a fault. Sally Fallon of the WAPF, told a panel at the end of the session, “We hear from parents daily whose kids have gotten rid of asthma and autism because of raw milk. This is a plea to take us seriously. This is a rapidly growing movement.” (Michael Schmidt kept a half-gallon jug of raw milk out on his conference table, in full view of the speakers, and was kind enough to share it with me and the very few others who wanted to partake.)

Sally’s is a plea John Sheehan is apparently too wimpish to bear.

(I’ll have more on some of the presentations in future posts.)