By Don Baumgart, HoneyColony Original
Organic Pastures Dairy in the San Joaquin Valley— vitally important agricultural region in Central California—specializes in raw, unpasteurized milk. According to OPD owner Mark McAfee, 18 trucks deliver the dairy’s raw milk to customers throughout California, and business only continues to grow.
Yet in the 13 years that McAfee has been in business, federal Food and Drug Administration agents or reps from California’s Department of Food and Agriculture have come to the dairy at least four times. Usually heavily armed, they charge in with full governmental authority to investigate his products, and have twice called for recalls that cost the dairy more than $100,000 each.
McAfee isn’t alone. Raw milk producers throughout the country have been raided, fined, shut down, and even taken to court to face jail time in recent years, sparking a debate that can sometimes seem as mottled and hard to clarify as a thick glass of cream.
The Raw Milk Debate
“Two years ago the California Milk Advisory Board, which promotes all state dairy products, spent $35 million – $1 per person in California – to promote fluid milk consumption,” McAfee explains. “For that they got a 1.5 percent decrease in sales. The dairy industry is dying on the vine when it comes to pasteurized milk.”
McAfee believes the reason for this slow death is simple, and that all you need to do is visit the FDA’s website and look at their list of allergenic foods to understand why.
“Pasteurized milk is No. 1 on that list,” he says, adding that of California’s 1,650 dairies, only three are currently approved to sell raw milk.
Yet on that same site, you’ll also find a page dedicated exclusively to explaining the alleged dangers of unpasteurized milk, which claims (in no uncertain terms) that “raw milk can make you sick,” and even warns that older adults, pregnant women, and children will find bacteria in raw milk “especially dangerous.”
Technically the FDA is right; raw milk can indeed make you sick. But there’s a lot of fuzzy math employed to back up the agency’s claim. For example, the website discusses how 1,500 people became sick from consuming raw milk products between 1993 and 2006, which might seem frightening until you account for the fact that food borne illnesses in this country bring upwards of 50 million people a year to the porcelain puke temple and kill nearly 3,000.
“(There is) no statistical difference in the rate of illness attributed to raw milk products compared to those produced from pasteurized milk,” says Sally Fallon Morell, president of nutrition education nonprofit the Weston A. Price Foundation. “Outbreaks (defined as two or more illnesses) involving raw milk or raw milk products involve far fewer individuals than outbreaks involving pasteurized milk.”
Pasteurization proponents stand by the science that says pasteurization kills harmful organisms, plain and simple. And we know that if we heat a liquid to a specific temperature and then cool it again (essentially all that pasteurization is), then we can slow microbial growth in food products generally.
That said, major traditional dairy farms that pasteurize their milk also pump their cows full of hormones, irradiate their products, employ loads of pesticides on the feed, and engage in other ecologically insensitive practices that are giving more and more people pause. Raw milk producers, on the other hand, tend to be small, GMO-free farms where animals are raised in a clean and natural environment, without the use of artificial hormones or antibiotics.
It’s also accepted that pasteurization causes some vitamin and mineral content to be lost, and several research trials are now suggesting that loss might not be as minor as we once thought. A 2011 study by the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, for example, found children given raw milk suffered less asthma and overall allergies, and the digestive enzymes retained in raw milk appear to make it less likely to cause lactose intolerance issues.
“Pasteurization sucks the nutritional life out of raw milk,” argues Dr. William Campbell Douglas, author of The Raw Truth About Milk. “Raw milk is an excellent source of calcium, but once it has been pasteurized, your body can no longer absorb many of the nutrients that are left. Plus, the pasteurization process destroys all the beneficial enzymes, hormones, antibodies, and fatty acids.”
Raw milk farmers across the country have begun to organize to fight what they see as a blind bureaucracy battle that has little to do with safeguarding the public’s health.
McAfee has learned to use the media in his battles against bureaucracy. Facing action against Organic Pastures over raw milk shipped across state lines (for use as pet food), he went public. One of his employees had been approached at her home, at night, by an armed FDA investigator and asked her to wear a wire to work. McAfee said the investigator also offered his employee a bribe for her cooperation. Once the story broke, “they pulled all the subpoenas and completely ran for the hills!”
Resistance to these storm trooper tactics is growing.
My Sisters Farm in El Dorado County’s Shingle Springs was raided by the CDFA in 2011 for selling raw milk. Problem was, presiding sheriff John D’Agostini simply refused to participate.
“I made the decision that the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office was not going to be the milk police,” D’Agostini told his board of supervisors.
He was speaking to the board in favor of the Local Food and Community Self-Governance ordinance that El Dorado farmer Pattie Chelseth was asking the supervisors to adopt. It was her place that the CDFA was targeting. D’Agostini got a request from that organization to provide back up while state agents issued a “cease and desist” order for Chelseth’s “unlicensed dairy.” He declined to participate.
An alarmed group of small California dairy farmers and consumers have recently formed the Food Rights Coalition and begun to push state regulators and legislators to take action to help them. Chelseth believes enforcement action by the state against her 10-acre dairy farm and five other goat and cow-share operations in California is why there is now a food freedom movement in the state.
In Indiana, Elkhart County Sheriff Bradley D. Rogers told federal regulators that repeat inspections of that state’s Forest Grove Dairy amounted to harassment of a raw milk producer and could result in the feds being arrested. An email from Rogers to federal officials advised them to obtain warrants before they returned to the raw milk dairy.
Additionally, food freedom bills in Utah and New Hampshire have been introduced calling for jailing state and federal officials who act contrary to existing provisions that shield food produced for local consumption from federal regulation.
But there are still plenty of sad stories, too.
Dan Allgyer, an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania, was caught in an FDA sting operation after the agency planted a spy in a local buying club he supplies to gather evidence against him. His farm was raided at gun point, and eventually the Department of Justice, at the request of the FDA, filed suit in Federal District Court to obtain an injunction prohibiting Allgyer from transporting and selling raw milk across state lines.
It’s also happening in Canada. Toronto dairy owner Michael Schmidt told local news gatherers how “on a November morning in 2006, 20 armed officers raided my small farm two hours north of Toronto. They weren’t looking for drugs or guns. They were there for the milk. These officers showed up in full riot gear with guns, like a SWAT team fighting terrorists or something. I sell milk.”
Question Of Semantics?
It is the process of bottling raw milk to which the CDFA specifically objects. The agency has said when consumers leave the farm with raw milk in a bottle the farm has become a processing plant, requiring special permits. The costs of obtaining those permits, which can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, put compliance out of the reach of most small dairies.
One thing the farmers of the Food Rights Coalition agree upon is that they would love to live without fear – fear of losing their farms, fear for their families’ safety, fear of being out in the open.
As one dairyman said, “It’ll be nice when everyone can come out of the barn.”
Jayson Matthews contributed to this story. Photo by Howard Elton/Flickr.