My three-week-old kefir, post-explosion. I was just opening a container of raw milk kefir I purchased about three weeks ago, to make a smoothie with some mango and blueberries, when there was this explosion. A pop, like a small firecracker. The kefir was everywhere, on the kitchen cabinets, the counter…and on my clean shirt. Talk about a living food!

I wasn’t pleased about the mess I had to clean up, or the shirt, but I took it as a good sign, that the kefir was as actively fermenting as I would hope it would be. (I cleaned up much of the mess before it occurred to me to take the photo at left.) Needless to say, the smoothie, when I finally made it, tasted great.

I’m not sure exactly what the experience says about the longevity of this particular dairy product, though I presume it bodes well. But I did want to comment on the rights vs standards argument that came up yet again following my previous post. Andy Mastracola, in an articulate essay, argues, “No one should be pushed around and this is what is happening now that there is an outcry for safety and a to hell with liberty attitude growing among the self proclaimed elite of the raw milk movement. Are they wolves in sheep’s clothing? Perhaps, only time will tell.”

I find it curious that he, and others continue to see the issue as either-or. Either we have a focus on safety or we have a focus on rights. The reality is that we don’t, as a practical matter, have nearly as many rights as we think we have, especially in the area of food.

I agree with Mastracola that we deserve the rights, that they are inherent, but the problem is that the pillars of our ruling system–the legislatures, executives, and judges–are too often failing to agree with us. Just today in Wyoming, a legislative committee turned down legislation to legalize cow shares. Now, it may be that a farmer should publicly set up a cow share and challenge the state to take him before a judge to rule on the matter. If the judge is like one in Maryland, he or she may say the state is within its rights to prohibit cowshares. If the judge is like one in Ohio, he or she may agree the farmer is within his rights.  

It’s one thing to claim our rights in terms that make all the logical sense in the world, but it’s another if you’re a farmer trying to conduct business in an atmosphere where the powers that be are shouting incessantly that your product is unsafe, and trotting out “experts” who claim unique knowledge about such matters. And then you find the ripple effect–for example, suddenly it becomes more difficult to obtain product liability insurance.

Lots of raw dairy farmers have been encountering this problem. Last fall, any number received cancellation notices. One of them was Martin Ping, the executive director of Hawthorne Valley Association, a working farm and teaching organization that sells raw milk. In October, his insurer, Farm Family Insurance, notified him that as Oct. 1, 2011, the insurer would no longer cover any claims that might stem from raw milk.

I contacted Farm Family, and a spokesperson refused comment.

Ping raised objections to the company, and in December, was notified that Hawthorne Valliey’s coverage wouldn’t be discontinued as planned.

From what I’ve heard, most dairy farms that were encountering insurance problems have been able to find other companies willing to insure them.

Now, I can speculate endlessly about what the real reasons might be for all the insurance company uncertainty, but so long as the companies can site “safety concerns,” they will. And as long as the trend in raw milk illnesses is headed upwards, it’s nearly impossible to challenge them legally.

We all know that insurance companies don’t like to take on real risk–witness their withdrawal from certain hurricane-prone areas, or poor big-city areas. In the auto insurance arena, many states allow companies to penalize with extra charges drivers who have accidents and speeding tickets.

Hopefully, as raw dairy becomes a more important consumer item, the insurance companies will adjust to the marketplace. Just like I can foresee a time when we have contests for who produces the best raw milk, I can imagine insurance companies providing lower rates to dairies that have no illnesses and meet certain testing criteria, and higher rates to those that have problems.

Now, all that may be infringements on our rights, but until we get judges and legislators and governors agreeing with us, we’re skating on thin ice. And the best way to begin doing that is to accumulate evidence that raw milk is much safer than the “experts” would have the public think.
For a taste of what could well happen in the U.S. in the event food rights advocates begin winning some court cases, one need only look northward, to Canada. Since Michael Schmidt’s victory in an Ontario court backing his right to make milk available to a private group of cow share owners, not only has the Ontario government appealed to a higher court, but other Canadian provinces are cracking down harder than ever on raw milk providers.

Now, in British Columbia, a raw dairy farmer, with Schimidt’s involvement, is challenging the constitutionality of the province’s conviction of Alice Jongerden for being in contempt of court in connection with a cow share operation from her farm, which Schmidt is now running. He has argued that the cow share’s milk is a cosmetic, not a food.

According to Schmidt, “Because of the existing laws [the cow share] is only producing cosmetics for its share members.”

In the meantime, Schmidt predicts “that Alberta will be next on the list to face constitutional challenges by determined consumers defending their constitutional right to life, liberty and security of the person.”
All the legal documents related to the court filing in British Columbia can be found on The Bovine.