It’s a tad awkward writing an assessment of a debate in which I was a participant…so here are a few random reactions to the raw milk debate at Harvard Law School Thursday evening. (If you missed it, you can view the recording on YouTube; it should be up shortly.)
* The two opponents–Heidi Kassenborg of the Minnnesota Department of Agriculture’s dairy division, and Fred Pritzker, a personal injury lawyer–handled well the audience’s clear pro-raw-milk leaning. Kasselbon said upfront, “I am probably not going to be able to persuade you.” Pritzker asked for a show of hands of those who favored raw milk, and was good humored when most everyone raised their hands.
* I thought Pritzker trivialized the argument of food rights. “There is no fundamental right in the Constitution that provides a right to do what you want.” I explained during the question period that the Constitution doesn’t mention food because no one at the time could imagine that the government would seek to prevent us from accessing particular foods, in effect leaving the matter in judicial and legislative hands.
* Though it wasn’t truly a debate as such, there was some good back-and-forth, such as about European studies that show raw milk reduces asthma and allergies in children. Kassenborg pointed out that the study authors have hedged their findings by warning of raw milk’s dangers. Sally Fallon responded that the authors likely have to include such language to get the studies published.
* Neither of our opponents was willing to go near the CDC data I provided showing raw milk illnesses to account for something on the order one-half of one percent of total foodborne illnesses–impressive when you consider that three per cent of the population is projected by the CDC to consume raw milk. Their idea of “data” was to quote all the health care associations that are against raw milk. Did they not want to deal with the quantitative data because it so clearly contradicts their argument?
* Kassenborg began her presentation by showing photos of herself as a child, growing up on a farm. “I drank raw milk, not a lot, but I wouldn’t drink it now.” The reason: “We have new diseases,” the primary one being E.coli O157:H7. I don’t know why, but that observation grates: Raw milk was okay for me, but it’s not okay for any of you.
* Fear mongering was very much in evidence from the other side, especially when Kassenborg asserted that farms that look clean can be deceptive. “What if I get milk at a farm that looks clean…There are all kinds of places along the process where contamination can occur. Have they cleaned every last inch of the udders? What about chickens running around with the cows?…You really are playing a game of Russian Roulette.” She also showed a slide to emphasize the old warning that the udder is close to the anus. She did have some good looking slides to make her points, though.
* Kassenborg made a useful point about the limits of on-farm or other testing. “Contamination is sporadic…and pathogens may be unequally distributed.”
* I thought it was interesting that Fred Pritzker, who has said on his blog that he wants to ban raw milk, during the debate provided conditions under which he would favor it–warning labels, courses for farmers, no sales allowed for children and people with depressed immune systems. My sense is that there would always be objections, but perhaps there was some movement, nonetheless.
* When Kassenborg raised the issue of “the economics of raw milk production,” I thought she was going to mention the economic benefits that accrue to farmers who sell raw milk directly to consumers. But she had something else in mind: “Is it really worth betting the farm” on raw milk? In other words, you could lose the farm in a lawsuit, so better to stay in the system.
* Author Ron Schmid (The Untold Story of Milk) was in the audience, and asked each panelist to provide his or her view of the Constitutional/human rights aspect of raw milk availability. That led a member of the audience to talk about her experience relieving her infant son’s excema by feeding him raw milk. Pritzker talked about how he has a son with disabilities due to genetic disorder, and stated, “But this isn’t about ultimately what you do with your son.” I said I thought the issue did have to do with what we do with our children, and ourselves, and I wondered how people in power could justify depriving people of nutritious healthful food.
* Not to pat ourselves on the back too hard, but I thought Sally Fallon of the Weston A. Price Foundation and I complemented each other real well–she presented on the nutritional benefits of raw milk and the history of pasteurization, and I presented on the illness data and emerging food rights issue.
* Pritzker may have had the best assessment of how this seemingly unresolvable issue will be resolved. “Ultimately, it is a political issue. If enough people want it, you will have it.” Good advice to take to heart in organizing for food rights.
* Some 2,400 people were plugged into the live streaming, which is pretty amazing. Plus more than 150 people in the audience (standing room only).
* The audience questions were excellent, and plentiful…so much so, the event was ended with many people unable to ask their questions.
I’ve been aware of a possible problem at Claravale Farm, a raw milk dairy in California, since early this week, when a reader sent me information that its deliveries for this week had been suspended. But I’ve hesitated to report it. Then, a few readers in comments following my previous post, provided clues as to what might be going on–indications of possible illnesses among customers.
Still, I hesitated. The challenge as a journalist is that you want to be first with the news, but you don’t want to be wrong when you are dealing with information that could potentially tarnish an individual’s or business’ reputation. I don’t care whether it’s raw milk or potatoes or pistachio nuts, news about a possible outbreak among customers is potentially very damaging. Especially when there is no compelling reason to be out front with the news–the company has already suspended deliveries, so no new potentially dangerous product is being put out there.
I know the public health authorities are intensively investigating this matter. At least one dairy outside California received an email from a California public health official inquiring as to whether his dairy’s milk might have made it into California. I sensed in the email that the California authorities are trying to take care as well in not putting out news on this matter prematurely, and potentially damaging the company’s reputation. As Sylvia points out in a comment, Claravale has an 85-year record of not ever having had an outbreak, so there is quite a reputation at stake.
It certainly would help the situation if Claravale said something publicly. I haven’t been able to reach Ron Garthwaite, the owner, yet.
All this is prelude to a blog post by food-safety lawyer Bill Marler that this blog “outs Claravale Farm as Source of Outbreak…”
He credits the individuals here with “doing… a public service.” Like I said, it’s a tricky business, and maybe I’m too old fashioned. I just get nervous when I see statements, like from Cali Farmer, “I also heard that a half a dozen kids have been sick with bloody diarrhea and all of them were drinking Claravale.” It’s the “I also heard…” that keeps me on edge. Yes, the social media and blogs are great at providing information the authorities and mainstream media are lax in providing, or just unwilling to provide. But it isn’t always verified information.
I’m always impressed when the community here wants to share important safety and health information as it happens, and I don’t want to discourage that process. At the same time, a small company’s reputation is at stake, and it could be there hasn’t been an “outbreak” attributable to Claravale. So, I always suggest trying to keep the balance in mind.
Certainly the indications aren’t great for Claravale. Still, I’m inclined to wait for more information before calling this an “outbreak.” Back and forth I go.