How’d ya like a fresh dollop of shit in that milk?
The simplified version of the story is this: Doug Stephan is an AM radio talk show host (no, I’ve never heard his show, nor has anyone I’ve ever met heard his show), and in a moment of hubris he bought one of Framingham’s remaining farms. Thinking that he could support it with revenue from his radio show, he decided that a dairy would would make his hobby farm even more wicked cool. When the recession hit, and he could no longer meet the $30,000 mortgage, he began looking for ways to increase the farm’s revenues. Enter the Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA), an organization more political than agricultural, who convinced Mr. Stephan that selling raw milk at $9 a gallon would be the answer to his prayers.
Needless to say, things haven’t been going that well for Mr. Stephan, and he is now looking to have a non-profit (probably with government help) bail him out. In addition, the state agricultural authorities found a high number of coliforms in his product (read: there’s something manure-ish in his milk). Stephan immediately invoked the favorite theory of the whack job, and said that there is a conspiracy to keep him from selling raw milk. Because we love this kind of stuff on the local level, this paranoia made it to the press.
A slightly shorter version of this appeared in the Metrowest Daily News. You can follow the history, should you so desire, by typing ‘raw milk’ in the search box.
Once again, Doug Stephan has decided that the 80 gallons of raw milk he sells to supplement the flagging ad revenues for his AM radio show are of importance to anyone but him and his few dozen customers. I’m not qualified in the mental health professions, so I don’t know if this is a persecution complex or delusions of grandeur. But, having worked in public health, I do know what it isn’t: it is not a conspiracy to keep him from selling his raw milk to the few dozen devotees who are either swayed by the taste (which I am sure is wonderful) or the pseudoscientific health claims (such as “Raw milk cured my _______!”)
As for Mr. Stephan’s website claim that his raw milk sales are being suspended due to “forces beyond” his control, I would take him at his word. What he is saying, in essence, is that it is beyond his control to keep cow manure out of the milk he sells. There were large numbers of coliforms in his milk, the milk he claimed would always test clean according to the rules put forward by the Commonwealth. Now that his milk has failed (as raw milk often does) he cries foul, and puts forth the Glenn Beckish opinion that it must be a conspiracy. Mr. Stephan wants you to think that he is selling his raw milk for some reasons other than profitability (most of his milk still goes to Garelick for pasteurization), and he doesn’t want you to know that there were at least 11 outbreaks of illness due to raw milk this past year, one of them not 30 miles away.
Yes, the rhetoric around raw milk is heated. The reason that those involved in public health get so bent out of shape about raw milk is twofold: 1) It turns the clock back on science, on proven methods for reducing foodborne illness, and 2) due to the vociferous, combative nature of its proponents, those in public health are required to spend time on a food item that is (fortunately) consumed by a minuscule portion of the population.
And yes, I have heard ad nauseam all of the arguments for raw milk, I am not going to respond to each one here. You can find them on the unedited comments section, and form your own responses. Some of them are so flimsy as to be embarrassing to their writers, and it is not my purpose to embarrass the uninformed. What I would like to do, instead, is respond to valid concerns about what public policy should be concerning food safety.
1. Currently, there are no such thing as “food rights.” You have no more right to buy raw milk at the grocery store than you have the right to eat in a restaurant that has been closed by the Department of Public Health.
2. Decisions of science are not determined at an open public forum. The public at large can debate what to do with scientific consensus once it is determined, but the consensus is not equally informed by experts and non-experts. (Somehow, the Framingham Board of Health thinks otherwise, but we now have a board completely staffed by non-experts.)
3. Comparing one food to another in terms of risk is spurious. Foods are prepared and consumed differently, and comparing raw milk to beef, chicken, bean sprouts, or gummy bears is useless.
4. The government has never told anyone that he or she can’t drink raw milk. What the government has said is that it has the right to regulate commerce in raw milk, the same as it has the right to regulate commerce in tobacco, pork, and gummy bears.
If policy is the issue should the average Framingham resident be worried about?
One is the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s unwillingness to send their milk safety experts over to the Mass. Department of Agricultural Resources for substantive talks and a unified policy. The head of the Bureau of Environmental Health, Suzanne Condon, feels that it is necessary for all information to be filtered through not only her office, but through Ms. Condon herself. This bottleneck has, in my opinion, been a major obstacle towards creating a coherent raw milk policy, one that can be supported by both Ag and Public Health. This bottleneck not only creates inefficiencies, it favors loss of information, as Ms. Condon’s expertise is in environmental health, not food safety.
The other matter of concern is that farmers in Massachusetts are reduced to selling an unsafe product to make ends meet. Alas, one of the conundrums of promoting raw milk is that as more farmers sell it, the price drops. (What a surprise, that this miracle product is not also immune to the laws of supply and demand.) An answer? I would consider it a proper use of government to support local agriculture. Of course, the fierce libertarian streak of Yankee farmers (like Mr. Stephan) might render them unable to accept such largesse.