Earth to Houston–we have a raw dairy problem.I used to think Kathy, the farmer who supplies my raw milk, was just making conversation when she’d tell me the details of her “family” of cows—which cows were pregnant, which had given birth, which calves had matured to the point they could become mothers, and which had gone out of and back into milk production. But I now realize, as I read Tim Wightman’s comments on my last post, that she has really been updating me on her closed herd. And it occurs to me I may want to inquire about any plans she has to add outsiders to her herd (though I suspect the answer will be an emphatic, “No!”).

The more I learn about raw milk illnesses, the more I realize how naïve many of us raw milk consumers are. Now, raw milk consumers are experiencing bouts of uncertainty and doubt. In Michigan, for example, shareholders from Family Farms Co-op are scrambling to find new sources of raw milk now that its main source, Forest Grove Dairy, has discontinued distribution. But now, they carry with them a seed of doubt. Which dairies are safest? Which dairies are potentially risky? How can they best assess the dairies?

As a friend of mine might put it: Earth to Houston, we have a raw dairy problem.

Of course, as far as the public health and medical establishments are concerned, we have long had a problem. In their view, whenever people consume raw dairy products, it’s a problem.

But finally, raw dairy proponents are coming around to the view we have a problem. While everyone agrees it’s not the problem the authorities would have us believe, there is a growing consensus that we have a problem, or rather a number of problems.

I should note that these are really problems of success in the sense that they stem from raw milk’s fast-growing popularity. Here are a few of the problems:

— At least some farmers are slipping up in their production of safe raw milk. That doesn’t mean raw milk can’t be produced safely on a consistent basis. Obviously, many dozens of dairies are doing it day in and day out, year after year. But as Tim Wightman of the Farm-to-Consumer Foundation points out in a comment following my previous post, “…there is value in understanding what happened with Dee Creek, The Alexanders, The Zinnikers, and now Forest Grove Dairy.”

–Prominent raw milk proponents remain in denial about not only the nature of the current difficulties, but whether there is even a problem. In my previous post, I quoted a couple of sickened members of the Weston A. Price Foundation expressing concern about the organization’s unwillingness to accept the reality that people can and do become ill from consuming raw milk. Blair McMorran, in a comment following my previous post, says, “I can’t understand the ‘WAPF intimidation’ expressed by the people who got sick. I’ve always understood WAPF’s mantra as ‘Know Your Source.’” Others commenters say they have the same understanding. Unfortunately, WAPF speaks with a forked tongue. The other part of the WAPF mantra, the dominant part, invariably denies the reality of outbreaks at small dairies, and in so doing, in effect blames the victim. After all, if you can’t get sick from a grass-based raw dairy’s milk, you, Mr./Ms. Campylobacter Patient, must have some other problem. As one prime example of the denial that continues, the WAPF still has a long post on its web site authored by its leader, Sally Fallon, casting doubts on the outbreak of illness at Dee Creek in Washington state in 2005—an outbreak that seems clearly to have resulted from contaminated raw milk. “While state officials express confidence that the outbreak was caused by raw milk, they have ignored many facts that call their conclusions into question,” concludes Sally Fallon’s report. Similarly, the organization assumed the denial role for contaminated raw milk in the Zinniker case in Wisconsin last year, when it accused Wisconsin investigators of “bias and inaccuracies,” even though it acknowledged that “DNA test results allegedly found the same strain of C. jejuni in 25 of the patients and manure samples obtained from 14 out of 30 milking cows on the farm…” And for Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Dairy Co. to revert to saying, following my previous post, that two children likely made seriously ill from raw milk might have gotten sick from spinach is to contradict his own statements in previous comments that the children could well have become ill from his milk, and further the denial sense. Just refer to the previous acknowledgments and leave the entire matter be.

–Reliance on absolutes. Raw milk consumers have been indoctrinated that not only should dairy cows be grass fed, but that anything else in the diet is a contaminant, rendering the milk unfit. Yet there is nothing even approaching conclusive evidence that grass feeding renders raw milk immune from pathogens. And many so-called pasture dairies are feeding their cows at least some grain, even if only for “treats” to get them into the barn for milking.

I suspect that a big part of the illness problem we’re witnessing is the result of growing demands for raw milk, inevitably placing strains on raw dairies’ production capabilities. Tim Wightman suggests in his comment that dairies experiencing outbreaks unwisely responded to increases in consumer demand by introducing animals purchased from a factory system known for problems. “Looking for the best deal has its hidden costs…for the farmer and the consumer, and the very web we depend on,” he says.

The raw dairy community’s defensiveness is understandable, since it’s up against the combined opposition of some of the most powerful interest groups in the country. But the reality is that despite all this opposition, raw milk has gained substantially in popularity. I noticed that Sally Fallon estimated in a Wall Street Journal article that just came out about raw milk that there are now three million drinkers—considerably more than the 500,000 to one million she had been estimating. And she’s probably on target.

It’s precisely because of its success that the raw milk community is now being placed under a microscope by the media and regulators. (A Wall Street Journal blog posting following up on the article accuses proponents of “dismissing warnings about bacterial contaminants…”) The knee-jerk defensiveness in the face of probably outbreaks, which wasn’t noticed when raw milk was a fringe food, just won’t cut it any more now that raw milk is regularly making the media big leagues.

In a truly open market, the marketplace would force the bad dairies out of business. But we don’t have a truly open market—we have one where regulators are in a position to force good dairies out of business for the transgressions of bad dairies.

Therefore, it’s up to the raw milk community to police itself. The Weston A. Price Foundation, as the leading proponent of raw milk, must move from automatically defending raw dairy producers to looking after its consumer members—educating them about finding reliable sources, and coming down on farmers who cut corners to speed or increase production. Maybe there needs to be a raw dairy association, with real authority. If the raw dairy community won’t take the responsibility to watch over its interests, I guarantee that the government will take over this responsibility even more than it already does, and the results won’t be geared toward protecting our rights to access the foods of our choice. ?