The scene at the Maryland-Pennsylvania border was almost surrealistic. There, in a beautifully sunny pastoral countryside, under a sign welcoming people to Maryland, about 50 people posed, some holding bottles of milk, others cheering. They were just about to transport their Pennsylvania raw milk into Maryland, in defiance of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation prohibiting “interstate commerce” in raw milk.
This was a highlight of a long-planned protest of the FDA’s heavy-handed clampdown on raw milk, organized by leaders of a Maryland food club whose club was infiltrated by FDA agents during 2010 and 2011 as part of an investigation and court suit against Pennsylvania Amish farmer Daniel Allgyer. The protest leaders, Karine Bouis-Towe and Liz Reitzig, called the 14-vehicle transport caravan the Raw Milk Freedom Riders, and the demonstration that followed, with more than 200 attendees, in front of FDA Silver Spring headquarters the Raw Milk and Cookies Rally. (And both the milk and home-baked cookies at the event were wonderfully delicious.)
Lo and behold, the event elicited something diifferent from the usually sullen or threatening messages common from the FDA– indeed, reactions that could actually be interpreted as conciliatory, at least in the context of FDA communications.
For one thing, Reitzig announced at the rally, she was contacted by two FDA officials on Friday and Monday, who said they wanted to encourage some sort of followup communication about the charge that the FDA has “criminalized” consumers transporting raw milk from one state to another (typically, from a state that allows raw milk sales, like Pennsylvania, to one that prohibits such sales, like Maryland). The FDA has in the past said it considers any transport of raw milk across state lines to be a violation of interstate commerce and that while it hasn’t enforced the regulation on individual consumers, it reserved the right to do so.
Moreover, the agency tacitly acknowledged that it understands that some consumers may prefer raw milk. “We urge consumers who purchase raw milk to understand the health risks involved. While raw milk puts all consumers at risk, the elderly, immune-compromised people, children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the hazards of raw milk consumption. FDA’s consumer education will continue to focus on helping consumers understand the risk to these populations.”
In government-speak, the FDA is implying a shift in emphasis to education from enforcement. Unfortunately, the FDA is notorious for not speaking in plain English about its intentions, forcing people to try to infer possible shifts in policy.
If any FDA staffers were at the demonstration outside its Silver Spring headquarters (overseen by 22 law enforcement officers of various sorts), they heard an earful from a range of pro-raw-milk speakers, including Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, Sally Fallon of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Dairy Co., Denise Dixon of Morningland Dairy, Liz Reitzig, and yours truly. “We are tired of being termed criminals over our milk,” said Reitzig. “We want to talk to the FDA about de-criminalizing raw milk, or we will do more of this.” She spoke of regional rallies in front of local FDA offices in other parts of the country.
It’s certainly tempting to perhaps over-analyze the FDA’s response to today’s activities, which had been fully broadcast well in advance. In terms of policy, announcing a hands-off approach to individual consumers transporting raw milk from one state to another isn’t a huge deal. It’s the private buying clubs that likely account for a much larger volume of raw milk moving across state lines, and those aren’t covered by the FDA’s shift.
But what may be significant is that the FDA actually announced a shift toward reduced enforcement of the raw milk prohibition. That’s a first that I’m aware of since the interstate ban went into effect in 1987. So the announcement may reflect more a gesture of conciliation, acknowledging the sincerity of the many who backed today’s protest. If it’s a gesture that leads to some kind of constructive dialog, then that’s positive.
“Some days I have a bad feeling and some days I have a good feeling,” Ontario dairy farmer Michael Schmidt said of his mood as his hunger strike bears on. He is on day 31 of the hunger strike, but the simple fact that he was able to travel to the Raw Milk and Cookies rally in Maryland suggested Schmidt was having a better day.
He reported that a growing number of members of Ontario’s parliament are lobbying the province’s premier, Dalton McGuinty, to meet with Schmidt. He has said he will give up the hunger strike if the premier will meet with him and launch a discussion about how to make safe raw milk available to Ontario citizens.
To those who have pleaded with him to end his hunger strike out of fear the food rights movement will lose its most important leader, Schmidt stated: “The movement can only be strong if there are 1,000 leaders, not one leader. You have to become a leader of your own body.”
He intends to press on, he said. “It’s either dialog or death.”