Northern California’s Humboldt County seems to have adjusted well to being the marijuana capital of America, but raw milk is an entirely different story. While the rest of California allows raw milk and other raw dairy products to be sold at retail, making it the biggest raw dairy market in the country, Humboldt has long outlawed the sale.

The report issued last week by the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services in response to Mark McAfee’s push to legalize raw milk is quite revealing on several levels. It’s worth reading, just so long as you understand you’ll probably be irritated no end.

First and foremost, it illustrates just how strongly key federal public health officials are locked in place. Actually, I should amend that statement and say it illustrates how much the entire public health apparatus is locked in place.

The county’s Department of Health and Human Services obviously swayed the report’s results by seeking out the opinions of agencies that have long opposed raw milk consumption as a public health menace. So you have the U.S. Food and Drug Administration saying in a statement for the report that it “continues to state that raw milk is inherently dangerous and should not be consumed directly…The FDA strongly encourages Humboldt County to continue to protect public health by prohibiting the production and sale of unpasteurized milk.”

Similarly, a Centers for Disease Control official writes Humboldt officials that the Organic Pastures materials “do not change our position regarding the threat to public health posed by consuming raw milk because they do not comprehensively and objectively present the risks of infection with pathogens that may be present in raw milk. CDC supports regulations to restrict the sale of raw milk.”

McAfee expressed his outrage to county health officials in an email he re-printed as the first comment following my previous post. It’s hard not to share at least some of his frustration, especially regarding the way the Humboldt County report dismisses several developments favoring raw milk. Key among them is the glossing over by several of the government experts consulted by Humboldt County of a major European study of nearly 15,000 children published in 2007, which concluded that “consumption of farm milk may offer protection against asthma and allergy.”

The FDA in its report to Humboldt County takes issue with whether “farm milk” is the same as raw milk, since the study indicated that as many as half of the farm families boiled their milk. But the report’s authors indicated they didn’t believe the number, conjecturing that many farm families likely said they boiled the milk to seem healthfully correct. Here’s what the study  (here in its entirety) says:

“At present, we can only speculate about the components of farm milk responsible for the observed protective effect. Farm milk possibly contains different levels or a different composition of pathogenic and nonpathogenic microbes compared with milk purchased in a shop….In conclusion, the results of the present study indicate that consumption of farm milk is associated with a lower risk of childhood asthma and rhinoconjunctivitis.”

The European study added: “The present study does not allow evaluating the effect of pasteurized vs. raw milk consumption because no objective confirmation of the raw milk status of the farm milk samples was available. Parental answers to a question on consumption of boiled vs. raw farm milk are likely to be biased due to the social desirability of responses because raw milk consumption is not recommended especially for young children.”

But more disturbing is that, while the European study’s authors advocated additional study to hone in the specific factors underlying the connection between raw milk and reduced disease, the FDA expresses no such interest. Its professionals know the answer, so why bother themselves with facts?

Similarly, the Humboldt County report dismisses favorable conclusions about raw milk from the Michigan Fresh Unprocessed Whole Milk Workgroup, which includes two officials from the Michigan Department of Agriculture. It stated a couple years back:

“Milk fresh from the cow is a complete, living, functional food.  Although we have looked at the numerous nutritional components of milk in the previous two questions, the full benefits of milk are only realized when all of these components function as a complex interdependent and balanced process.” 

Finally, as McAfee points out, the report pretty much ignores the fact that thousands of people drink raw milk in California without any problems. “Raw milk, as it is produced in California and sold into 400 stores and consumed by 50,000 people per week is not given any credit for being clean and safe,” he stated in his email response to Susan Buckley, director of the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services. “The idea that raw milk (as produced in California) is somehow ‘so dangerous,’ that it cannot be purchased by your citizens….is an outrageous comment.”

It is certainly remarkable, given all the discussion on this and many other food-related sites about the risks and benefits of raw milk, that positions remain as hardened as they do. Even Bill Marler, the food safety lawyer who has participated in discussions on this blog that Steve Bemis quoted at some length following my previous post, reverts to form. In his own post on the Humboldt County report, Marler’s main commentary is to call up a video of a California woman who was paralyzed a couple years back, apparently as the result of consuming raw milk from a cowshare. The implied argument: we had a serious illness, so no raw milk allowed.

Part of the problem seems to be the way the parties go at this issue, and the attendant emotion. Trying to make the case for raw milk on the basis of its nutritional superiority to pasteurized milk, as Mark McAfee did, is a very difficult task, since there hasn’t been a lot of research, and what’s out there isn’t as clearcut as it might be.

Trying to make the case that raw milk isn’t the public health hazard the FDA and CDC say it is–well, that is a different matter. As noted, hundreds of thousands of people are drinking raw milk every day, without ill effect, in California and elsewhere. Yet the government position remains unyielding. Instead of examining ways consumers can be more effectively warned and educated about the possible dangers of raw milk, the so-called experts deny adults the right to make their own decision. So Humboldt County may continue to hold the distinction of being the one place in America where it’s easier to obtain marijuana than raw milk.

I have an article at Grist about the Humboldt County situation.