““In Russia, we can’’t say what we want, but we can eat what we want. In the U.S., we can say what we want, but we can’’t eat what we want.”” ~ From an attendee at the postponed hearing in Foxborough considering tough raw milk regulations for Lawton’s Family Farm

Supporters of Lawton's Farm at Monday evening's postponed hearing in Foxborough, MAThe non-hearing over Lawton’s Family Farm was frustrating in one sense–the 140 or so attendees who overflowed the meeting room were brewing for an active debate. When someone in the audience suggested to the Foxborough Board of Health that, instead of postponing the hearing, the board just withdraw the proposed tough new regulations designed to replace long-established state regs, the audience burst into loud applause.

The board was obviously impressed by the outpouring. “We’ve never had this much interest in something we are doing,” one of the health board members stated.

I don’’t think the board is going to withdraw the regulations, but I sense there will be some easing in its approach. I had a long talk after the postponement (new date not set yet) with Eric Arvedon, the Foxborough board member who is leading the charge on the tough town regulations, and he told me that “revised” proposed regulations will be posted within the next few days. Missing will be the requirement that Lawton’s test its milk on a weekly basis, instead of the state’s monthly requirement.

He also suggested there would be adjustment to a couple other controversial items: that Lawton’s file an operating and safety plan each year to get its raw milk permit renewed, and that the dairy be shut down for up to 30 days in the event of high bacterial readings.

“We’re not trying to make it hard for them (Lawton’s),” he told me. “The regulations will pretty much mirror the state regulations.”

If that is the case, why get a town involved in something the state seems to be handling very well? Arvedon said he isn’t convinced the state is handling the situation as well as it could. He was perturbed when, last spring, the state twice required Lawton’s to halt sales for a few days because of certain high (non-pathogenic) bacterial counts, and, in his estimation, Lawton’s seemed unresponsive to the town’s concerns that customers be notified.

Terri Lawton, who helps run the dairy with her parents, says customers were notified, even though the state has no notification requirement. She says she rejected a town request for confirmation that customers were notified because this would have meant sharing a customer list.

From my conversation with Arvedon, I would say that the town officials have a very steep learning curve about raw milk….if, indeed, they are sincerely interested in learning. The health culture in which the Foxborough Board of Health spends much of its time is the factory-food culture that typifies the U.S., and is far removed from the raw milk/nutrient-dense food culture.

It seems that one of the big problems in the Foxborough situation stems from the fact that Massachusetts is one of the few states, perhaps the only state, in which both towns and the state are granted authority over raw milk by the legislature. For the nearly 30 dairies that produce raw milk around the state, the towns seem content to have the state handle the permitting and inspection process via its two full-time dairy inspectors. However, a little more than half the towns actually have prohibitions against raw milk sales, dating from the 1950s and 1960s, though at least three of those towns have reversed the bans in recent years so as to allow local farms to sell raw milk (and none of the towns that allow sales have enacted bans).

In the case of Foxborough, it seems clear that the board of health members are just getting up to speed on the realities of raw milk. I inquired with Arvedon about something he was quoted about in local papers–that 30 states prohibit raw milk and cheese sales.

When I asked him where he obtained that information, he said he was sure it was from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and began rummaging through a thick file of FDA and CDC printouts about raw milk. He wasn’t able to find it, probably because even the FDA hasn’t exaggerated the situation with regard to raw milk availability that badly; as we know, raw milk cheese that has been aged at least 60 days under FDA regulations can be sold anywhere, and there are 17 or 18 states that prohibit raw milk sales to the public, though most of those states allow herdshare arrangements.

Why would a local board of health that mostly oversees a National Football League stadium and local restaurants want to inject itself into something as challenging as raw milk? According to the Lawtons’ lawyer, Frank DiLuna, who represents clients before local health boards on various issues, “They do it because they can.”

In this case, all it took were a couple of high bacteria readings, and the local officials were prepared to pounce. Seemingly another reason why raw milk producers, in particular, can be well served by involvement in the Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI)–for the information and teaching it provides on producing consistently high-quality milk, and for the credibility it provides to uncertain local regulators.

While waiting last evening for the Foxborough Board of Health to take up the raw milk issue, board members debated food preparation procedures at nearby Gillette Stadium for New England Patriots games. An inspector had just been over there Sunday evening, and was concerned that some cooked food might be held more than four hours before being served to customers. There was an intense back and forth about how food vendors at the stadium might need to mark the time various foods are prepared, so food more than four hours old could be disposed. I’m not sure why four hours was such a huge deal, but it was.

In a culture where keeping the fast-food burgers and fries fresh and antiseptic is a high priority, educating about raw milk, the microbiome, and fermentation is definitely going to be a big challenge.