Okay class, pay attention.
Today’s subject of discussion: academic freedom.
Enough with the groans, everyone. I know it’s not the sexiest topic when it comes to food issues, but you may change your attitude when you hear the story I’m about to tell you.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about what I thought was a well balanced scientific assessment, by a prominent
international science writer, of several large-scale research studies out of Europe about the potential health benefits of raw milk (with the unsexy title, “The evidence around raw milk”). It was published in SPLASH, the newsletter of the International Milk Genomics Consortium (IMGC), which is housed at the University of California, Davis.
The IMGC has been doing research for years on the benefits of mother’s milk, and obtains financial support from the California Dairy Research Foundation (CDRF), a nonprofit arm of the state’s conventional milk industry.
The IMGC has begun extending its research in recent years to cow’s milk. Potentially dangerous territory, as we all know, since those who regulate milk in the U.S. think everything that needs to be known about milk is known, as in pasteurized milk is wonderful and unpasteurized milk is deadly dangerous.
But the newsletter article from the IMGC didn’t reinforce that view. Yes, it summarized statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control about the dangers of raw milk (“The CDC estimates the risk of a glass of raw milk causing a disease outbreak is at least 150 times that of a glass of pasteurized milk,” it said at the very outset.)
But after summarizing the CDC data, it explained potentially positive implications of major research studies out of Europe on raw milk. “The data suggest that raw milk can cause both trouble and advantage to a human body…To be sure, heating milk to 72°C for 15 seconds reduces the odds of a bad belly, but does it also destroy complex proteins and other components that could bolster human health? Apparently so.”
Then, it poured gasoline on the flame it had ignited, by saying that “there is strong evidence that (raw milk) benefits young children…” And, turning a roaring fire into an inferno, it added that “the world needs studies testing whether large numbers of grown-ups suffering from asthma, hay fever, and similar medical problems see their allergies dampen down after drinking raw milk for a prolonged period.”
In retrospect, such statements were akin to standing on street corners in 1491 and shouting out that the world was round. My post went up Oct. 2, presumably a day or two after the October issue of SPLASH went up, with three articles. By last Friday, only two of the articles were still available to all visitors. “The evidence around raw milk” had disappeared.
The one- paragraph intro to the third article, “The evidence around raw milk”, was there as well, but when you click to read more, you are taken to a page asking for your log-in info. So I registered, figuring I could access the article that way. When I received a link to get a password, and got onto the site and tried to call up the article in question, it said “Insufficient Privileges.” The article had been pulled. And off to the left column of the page, where it showed who had been on the page before I got there, the most recent name was that of John F. Sheehan, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Director of Plant and Dairy Food Safety. (Damn, the evidence the Internet sometimes leaves behind!)
So what exactly happened to the raw milk article? The word I have on pretty good sources (I don’t want to identify them because this stuff is so sensitive that jobs and careers could be placed at risk) is that someone from the FDA (Sheehan?) contacted the CDRF and demanded that the SPLASH raw milk article be removed. I’ll make an educated guess that the FDA was upset because the SPLASH article asserted that the European research indicates pasteurization may “destroy complex proteins and other components that could bolster human health.”
I make that guess because Sheehan testified on just this subject before the Maine legislature in 2011, in connection with a (successful) effort by the FDA to block legislation that would have made it easier for small dairies to sell raw milk directly to customers.
He argued in his testimony that the European research on the role of proteins in conferring health benefits, and their sensitivity to pasteurization couldn’t have been correct. Pasteurization does not destroy milk proteins, he claimed. Caseins, the major family of milk proteins, are largely unaffected by pasteurization. Any changes which might occur with whey proteins are barely perceptible.
Back to our lesson on academic freedom. The FDA obviously has a different view of “truth” than the European researchers. And certainly, the issue hasn’t been resolved. It requires further research and analysis. That is what academic freedom is all about–analyzing, researching, debating, discussing.
The view underlying academic freedom is that no one holds a monopoly on truth. It explains why professors get tenure–so they will feel free to express their views on scientific (or other research) despite the political pressures of the day. Censoring scientific papers is a big no-no within the tradition of academic freedom.
I have no way of knowing whether anyone at UC Davis or CDRF protested to the FDA that pulling the raw milk article was a serious infringement on academic freedom. But I can guess at what the FDA reaction would have been–something like if you were to tell an underworld enforcer trying to sell you “protection” that such practices are against the law. A laugh, and then a question: “Who you gonna complain to?”
But perhaps the FDA should be looking over its shoulder, and asking a different question: How long can it keep its finger in the dike and preventing the Truth from asserting itself?
It’s always strange to read about your activities through the prism of (another) journalist, and especially in the context of age. But suffice it to say there is, what seems to me, a nice profile of my activities on behalf of food rights at Philly.com.