A photo from the Oregon Department of Public Health of the Foundation Farm, accused of producing raw milk that sickened members of a herdshare; the photo is supposed to suggest the animals were kept under unsanittary conditions. Back in the days of the Old South early last century, there’d be this awful cycle of violence that went something like this: A black man would be accused of snatching a purse or stealing food or, God forbid, smiling or making eye contact with a white woman. This was “the incident.” There might well have been a violation of the law, but that mattered less than who was responsible when it came to how events unfolded.

Then would come “the reaction.” Whites would express outrage among each other, that local blacks were misbehaving, just didn’t know how to conduct themselves, were inherently criminal and had it in for whites. Maybe a local politician or lawyer would give voice to the complaints via a speech or two or quotes in the local media. 

Local blacks would then cower, waiting for “the retribution.” It might be the accused summarily convicted by a white jury and hauled off to jail with a long-term jail sentence, or it might even be the guys in white robes, masks, and pointy hats showing up in the middle of the night and taking black men who had nothing to do with the original incident off to be shot or hung.

There’s an analogy in that awful history to what’s happening in the world of raw milk right now. Sure, it’s an imperfect analogy, but there are some important similarities. There have been reports of outbreaks associated with raw milk in Missouri and Oregon. Most disturbing, reports of children having become seriously ill from E.coli O157:H7.

These are “the incidents.” But less important than the actual events is how the situation unfolds.

Now, we’re getting some of the “the reaction.” Fred Pritzker, a personal injury lawyer, put out a press release yesterday calling for a ban on raw milk for children, based on the Missouri situation.

A local paper, The Oregonian, had a lengthy report on the illnesses in the state, with most of it devoted to official condemnations of raw milk. Here’s an excerpt:

” ‘There are laws that prohibit the retail sale (of raw milk) because this is not a safe product,” Hedberg (a state epidemiologist) said. ‘People think there is a controversy. There is no controversy. People routinely used to get sick from raw milk.’

“A report published this month by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that between 1993 and 2006 a total of 930 people fell ill after consuming raw milk, including 71 who were hospitalized. In other outbreaks during the same period associated with raw milk cheese, 641 were sickened, including 131 who were hospitalized. Two people died after eating raw milk cheese.

“CDC and other food safety experts have long warned the public to only consume milk products that are pasteurized, which kills harmful foodborne bacteria.”

There follow quotes from lawyer Bill Marler describing cases he has handled from illnesses involving raw milk, concluding that  “it doesn’t seem that any possible benefits outweigh the risks.”

So, now that the media and public health people and lawyers have done their fear-mongering thing, farmers and consumers around the country await “the retribution.” Will it be like what happened in Minnesota following on the accusations against dairy farmer Michael Hartmann in 2010, when eight illnesses associated with E.coli O157:H7 were linked to his dairy? In the aftermath, authorities acted out the equivalent of the dragnet for a few black men to lynch–they shut down a popular Minneapolis food club, Traditional Foods Minnesota; invaded the home of suburban soccer mom Rae Lynn Sandvig in a vain search for quantities of raw milk and meat she was allegedly distributing; and arrested farmer Alvin Schlangen, who had nothing to do with Hartmann. (His trial, which could lead to a year in jail, begins April 14 in Minneapolis; supporters will hold a rally to support him.)

There weren’t even any illnesses in California, when “the retribution” occurred there and multiple agencies went after Rawesome Food Club in Venice, eventually arresting three people associated with the food club and charging them with felonies. “The reaction” continues in California, where two of the three charged in connection with Rawesome–James Stewart and Sharon Palmer–have been charged with additional felonies in connection with loans some members extended to Palmer.

There is an excellent report on a recent court inquiry into those loans, and the slim evidence of fraud that was presented, put together by Angela Doss and posted at The Girl’s Gone Raw blog. Much as in the kangaroo-court trials that occurred with blacks in the South, there’s actually a possibility the modern-day scapegoats could be convicted and sentenced to serious jail terms.

Or “the retribution” could take the form of renewed lobbying against food rights in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota, where legislation to loosen slightly very tight restrictions on raw milk are under consideration.  The raw milk opponents will trot out lobbyists from Big Dairy and professors from universities supported by Big Ag to do more fear mongering.

What I find bothersome, as part of the community that is accused, is that it’s nearly impossible to come up with a constructive reaction to all this. I feel terrible about children becoming seriously ill. While statistically we don’t have a public health problem from raw milk, there’s no question the raw milk community should be concerned about the kinds of illnesses occurring in Missouri and Oregon. Many want to know why such cases are occurring, and what can be done to reduce their likelihood–in other words, some combination of useful investigation, research and education.

But that kind of approach seems not to be an option in the current atmosphere of hysteria and recrimination. How do we respond in a sensitive and helpful way when we’re simply being shouted at by lawyers using the Internet to out-market each other in their search for sick clients, and by public health officials who offer quips that “there is no controversy” because, after all, everyone agrees raw milk is inherently unsafe?  And you know that no matter how you respond, there’s going to be officially sanctioned retribution upcoming as part of the response.

The larger problem is that there is so much dissonance and contradiction in the situation. Most fundamentally, the accusers want raw milk eliminated rather than any kind of reasoned inquiry. Not surprisingly, the targeted farmers and consumers get their backs up, and go into denial mode, seeking more proof that raw milk was the culprit in these situations.  Even those raw milk supporters who might want a reasoned discussion about how to learn from the illnesses that have occurred find it impossible to have any meaningful exchange with people who basically want the product eliminated or so severely regulated that it wouldn’t be available. They are supposedly interested in furthering “the public health,” yet seem uninterested in making raw milk safer. And, of course, we haven’t even begun to consider the economic incentives in the move to rid the nation of raw milk  (beyond those for the lawyers).

Our culture teaches us that everything can be worked out by well-meaning people. The emphasis is on “well-meaning.” So, the same tired cycle of verbal and regulatory recrimination repeats itself each time illnesses associated with raw milk occur, neither side really listening to the other, and instead engaged in a propaganda war to convince the public that it is right and the other side is wrong.