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Read This Book If You Want To Understand the Food Safety Debate

by: Jill Richardson

Tue Sep 15, 2009 at 23:23:43 PM PDT


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Think back to earlier this year when numerous emails were flying around about the evils of H.R. 875 and the government takeover of food. If this is the first you're hearing on the matter, consider yourself lucky. It was a lot of noise over what turned out to be nothing. Those of us who were watching Congress were baffled by the outrage expressed about the bill.

According to the rumors, the bill was secretly sponsored by Monsanto and it was going to ban backyard gardens, farmers markets, and organics. Yet, Consumers Union strongly supported the bill. I read through the bill text and didn't find anything that would possibly ban organics or farmers' markets. Most of the bill had nothing to do with farms - it covered "food facilities," a term that exempts farms and restaurants. Oh - and the Monsanto claim? Totally false. A look at Monsanto's lobbying records shows they had nothing to do with it.

According to the rumors from DC insiders, H.R. 875 was basically dead on arrival. Its sponsor, Rosa DeLauro, was not on the committee that would ultimately pass a food safety bill, the House Energy and Commerce Committee. One of the most powerful men on that committee, Henry Waxman, had also proposed a food safety bill. His bill would be the one that moved forward, not H.R. 875. Then word came down that there would be a NEW bill put forth by Dingell that combined characteristics of his previous bill and H.R. 875. That turned out to be H.R. 2749, which ultimately passed. So why the hysteria over a bill that ultimately went nowhere? And why are people so suspicious of giving the government more power to keep our food safe when clearly we have a major food safety problem in this country?

Once H.R. 2749 came on the scene, opposition started up again, although this time it was quite a bit more grounded in reality. Still, what gives? If people are dying from peanut butter and spinach, shouldn't the government have the tools to keep us safe from foodborne illness?

Throughout this time, I kept in touch with my friend Judith McGeary, who understood the opposition to the food safety bills very well (in fact, she had a hand in writing some of the action alerts... the sane, reality-based ones, that is). At the core of much of the opposition was raw milk. Through Judith, I navigated what would otherwise be a very confusing headache of food safety bill opposition.

This week, I've read through an advance copy of David Gumpert's upcoming book The Raw Milk Revolution. I can now say: I GET IT. I might not agree with it 100%, but I get it. If you want to understand the vocal opposition to food safety laws, you should read Gumpert's book too. That's not the only reason to read it though. Even if you have little interest in raw milk, I think this book is a key piece in the puzzle to understanding the backwards priorities in America's food safety system.

Jill Richardson :: Read This Book If You Want To Understand the Food Safety Debate
Something like ten million American people drink raw milk (estimates vary). It's not a common product. It's not even legal in many places, and in most states it's not sold in stores. Even when it is sold, it's expensive! You don't pay $6 for a gallon of milk by accident. Nor do you buy part ownership in a cow or drive to a farm in another state by accident, as some people do in order to obtain their raw milk. People who get raw milk really want it, and they know what they are getting.

I've had raw milk a few times myself, mostly on dairy farms. I've only purchased raw milk three times (the other times it has been given to me for free). Once was on a farm in Pennsylvania and once was from a farmer in Texas. The third time was from a retail store in California. The CA raw milk from the store was not good, in my opinion, so I did not buy it again. In all of the other cases, raw milk tasted richer and sweeter than the pasteurized milk I grew up with. I did not notice any of the health benefits that many raw milk aficionados boast of, but then again, I don't have many health problems in the first place. Lovers of raw milk say it has relieved their asthma, allergies, colitis, and ADHD, among other things. Some people who are lactose intolerant say they are able to drink raw milk with no problems.

My initial attitude on raw milk was: if people want it, let them have it, but regulate it so it is as safe as possible. I mean, what do they do for sushi? That's a raw product that we legally consume. In theory, if you require that farmers test the milk frequently and meet certain conditions that would reduce the risk of bacterial contamination (cleanliness, for example), that should be a workable compromise to allow people a legal path to get their raw milk.

During the H.R. 875 blow-up, Judith told me that raw milk farmers had been targeted by the FDA, even when no one had gotten sick. Gumpert's book elaborates on this. In some cases, no one was sick at all. In other cases, while no one was sick, the state found a bacteria or two in the milk (on testing equipment that may or may not have been faulty). In yet other cases, people got sick and the government blamed raw milk, but the sick people and their families felt that the illness was from something else (like a child eating snow contaminated with bird poop, or a family who drank pasteurized milk). Still other cases remain unresolved. You've got sick people who drank raw milk and no matching strain of E. coli in the cows or their milk. And then there's at least one case where they DID find a match between the sick consumers and the raw milk and the cows' manure.

In other words: raw milk gets blamed for food safety problems a lot, probably more than it deserves. Can raw milk be contaminated? Sure - but so can anything, as we've seen from recalls in everything from cookie dough to pet food. And what about the cases of regulators harassing dairy farmers in the absence of anyone getting sick?

It's not just the targeting of dairy farmers selling raw milk that is impressive but the lengths the government goes to to target them. It's often more fitting for a drug bust than a raw milk bust. Dairy farmers aren't known for being violent people, and cows can't be hidden and smuggled as easily as cocaine. Chances are if the authorities wish to talk to a farmer, the farmer will be quite willing to talk (and perhaps even comply with the government's requests, if they are reasonable) - no dramatic intimidation or sting needed. Yet for some reason, all too often, state and federal officials chose to treat farmers like drug dealers (actually sending one farmer to the hospital with PTSD!).

So - if this was your experience with the government's food safety regulations, would you be nervous about new laws giving the FDA increased authority? I would. From what I understand, Judith wants the new law (H.R. 2749 and its Senate counterpart) to be airtight to keep the FDA from using the bill to step up its war on raw milk. And it's really sad that we can't just pass a food safety bill and trust the FDA to do the right thing, but in this case, I think they've lost that trust a long time ago.

When it comes to raw milk, I wish the government would just leave the raw milk people the hell alone. Is it 100% safe? No. Nothing is. Is it risky for a parent to give raw milk to a child? Maybe, but parents do all sorts of rotten things to their kids with impunity, like feeding them fast food frequently or smoking cigarettes around them. And unlike raw milk, fast food and second hand smoke carry more than just risks of harm to one's health - they are proven to harm your health. I'd like to see the government work together with dairy farmers who sell raw milk to set some boundaries and allow raw milk to be legal within those boundaries.

As for food safety, there's a wider debate to be had here. The government can't shut down a meatpacking plant after it finds pathogens repeatedly, yet the slightest evidence of listeria is enough for them to go after a small dairy farmer who sells raw milk. Perhaps it's time to reconsider this leniency on the meatpacking plants?

Seeing how much scrutiny raw milk is under makes me all the more outraged at the lax food safety atmosphere that the REST of our food has had over the past decade or two. If less than 5% of the U.S. population drinks raw milk, then why focus our resources there? Can we not focus on the foods that are widely consumed? That's where the most risk lies, because our food system is so highly concentrated, and a relatively small number of companies make the majority of food eaten in the U.S.

If a small farm has a food safety problem, a small number of customers in a limited geographic area will be harmed. That is not true when a national company like Nestle has a food safety problem and all U.S. consumers must be alerted about the issue. And it gets worse when the tainted product is an ingredient in many products that are sold under numerous brand names, like the peanut butter outbreak last winter. There may be loss of life in all of these cases, but the economic effects are far more devastating when a food is mass marketed nationally. Furthermore, traceability is easier for products sold by small farmers to a small group of customers, so it should be simpler for them to alert their customers about the problem quickly than in nationwide food scares. Given all of that, I'd prefer the government focus its food safety resources on large companies, not small farmers.

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Never had raw milk, myself... (4.00 / 6)
...but at the same time I strongly support people's right to access to same.

Hell, I'd chug gallons and gallons and gallons of raw milk before I'd ever even consider eating 99% of the shit in supermarkets these days.

If FDA is looking for real deadly problems in our food system, most times they don't actually have to look any further than their local newspapers.  Or the "health report" on their local television news show.  And it ain't raw milk causing that shit.  It's Nestle, JBS Swift, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, ConAgra, etc...

Pardon my cynicism, but I think I'm gonna have to say the difference is that these companies have high-priced lawyers, lobbyists, and pr firms while owning most of Congress; whereas John and Mary Dairy just outside of Mount Angel, Oregon decidedly don't have any of the above...  


Where to begin? (4.00 / 5)
I wouldn't drink raw milk.  Then again, I don't drink any milk.  I was allergic to it as a child & it doesn't "go" well with beer.

But raw milk cheeses?  Them's fightin' words.  Most of Europe & all of France eat raw-milk cheeses & never get sick.  Why does our government think it is impossible for raw milk cheese to be safe, when the very microbes that turn the milk into cheese destroy any pathogens that might be in the milk (yeah, I wish I had a link to that study...but I'm quite sure I read about this in the NYT & am too lazy after work to try to search for it).

The whole governmental hysteria reminds me of when, in the 1990s, there was an outbreak of salmonella related to hens & eggs, and the state of NJ decided to make it illegal to serve "runny" eggs: like, eggs over easy, or sunny-side-up, or, really, any eggs that weren't cooked to rubber.

That didn't last long, and I was still in Manhattan so if I went out for breakfast, my eggs were still over easy.

I never got salmonella, either.

The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found. -- Calvin Trillin


I remember that! (4.00 / 2)
The whole governmental hysteria reminds me of when, in the 1990s, there was an outbreak of salmonella related to hens & eggs, and the state of NJ decided to make it illegal to serve "runny" eggs: like, eggs over easy, or sunny-side-up, or, really, any eggs that weren't cooked to rubber.

Damn, I remember that!  Totally slipped my mind until now.  I have to go do some digging and find some articles and oped pieces from back then...

As for this -

Why does our government think it is impossible for raw milk cheese to be safe, when the very microbes that turn the milk into cheese destroy any pathogens that might be in the milk (yeah, I wish I had a link to that study...but I'm quite sure I read about this in the NYT & am too lazy after work to try to search for it).

It's because like 99% of Americans would like to think of food as a sterile laboratory enterprise best left to secretive corporations who magically deliver clean-looking boxes and shrink-wrapped packages of edible things to their nearest ShopRite, Safeway or WalMart.

Honestly, I'd like to see a poll done to see if Americans really even know where cheese comes from.  "The Kraft plant in Sheboygan!"

Lol...


[ Parent ]
Oh (groan) you're probably right (4.00 / 2)
I have a Sav-A-Lot a block away & naturally that's where I buy most of my groceries.

But their cheese sucks.  Big-time.  In fact, it's pretty much inedible.  I also pay too much for eggs, b/c I buy the better brand offered at the convenience store.

Sometimes, though, it is better to waste money & keep the mom & pop shop alive (& selling better products) than it is to Sav-A-Lot and eat crap mass-produced food.  Y'know?

P.S.: Their cheese is much worse than Kraft.

The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found. -- Calvin Trillin


[ Parent ]
btw: LOL (4.00 / 2)
It's because like 99% of Americans would like to think of food as a sterile laboratory enterprise best left to secretive corporations who magically deliver clean-looking boxes and shrink-wrapped packages of edible things to their nearest ShopRite, Safeway or WalMart.

Hmmm...not sure why, but you just reminded me of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese...the kind that comes in a box....

I think I need to get to the farmer's market on my way to work Friday so I can buy some Gruyere...and maybe a bit of grass-fed steak.  (Am craving steak...it has been months...don't hate me for that, okay?)

The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found. -- Calvin Trillin


[ Parent ]
Wanna know what's really funny? (4.00 / 2)
I honestly just picked Sheboygan out of thin air, but then I decided to go to Kraft's corporate site (the 'career locator' section) and pick an actual location of theirs...

Would you believe it?  Kraft does have a plant in Sheboygan, Wisconsin!!!

(Am craving steak...it has been months...don't hate me for that, okay?)

I don't 'hate' anybody for eating what they want to eat.  I just want people to have better choices.  What they choose to eat from that point on is up to them.  Jill sums it up better than I ever could...

:)

I'm not a vegangelical here, Youff.  You gotta know that by now!


[ Parent ]
Found one - NJ "Runny Egg Ban", 1992... (4.00 / 2)
Here's an old article via Google.

Blast from the past!  :)

I remember that just like it was yesterday, for some odd reason.  But at the same time, I haven't thought about that "controversy" for, well, I guess 17 years.  From February 12, 1992 -

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey's runny egg ban, ridiculed by everyone from the governor to Johnny Carson, is headed for the compost pile of state culinary history.

The State Public Health Council voted Monday to relax the infamous ban on undercooked eggs in restaurants that the state imposed Jan. 1 because of concerns about salmonella poisoning.

[...]

The original rule required that eggs be cooked at a minimum temperature of 140* F.  The use of raw eggs in sauces, salads and other foods was banned.  Violators faced fines of $25 to $100.



[ Parent ]
raw milk cheeses are aged (4.00 / 3)
because they kind of 'self pasteurize' that way.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Raw Milk...It is not about food safety. (4.00 / 3)
Just from what I've read in the past couple of years, raw milk isn't a food safety issue so much as a commercial dairy protection issue. At least that is the way it seems to me.

If raw milk was not illegal in most states you would see real local dairies again. Without the control over the processing of raw milk, it would be possible for small farms to actually sell milk from just a small herd...Herd sizes that aren't profitable for the big producers to pickup milk from.

I remember visiting with my grandparents back in the 1970's when all of their milk and eggs came from the lady down the road with a 1000 acre ranch. She kept a milk cow to supply her own milk and cream and sold the excess to the neighbors...It was the last milk I enjoyed drinking. It also made toast and milk for breakfast a real meal to start the day with.

It is through the food safety laws that production of milk is controlled.  


Toast and milk. (4.00 / 1)
I thought my family was the only one that knew about toast and milk for breakfast. Buttered toast, hot milk. Yum.

Is this a more common breakfast food than I thought?


[ Parent ]
I've had milk toast before (4.00 / 1)
I'm not a big fan of milk for drinking, but cream on toast is OK, especially if it's drizzled with some honey. I like sweet cream on cornbread. Mmmm. Little sugar or honey and some cinamon, nutmeg, etc. Be good with some berries too.

Oh damn, now I'm going to have to make cornbread today. I bought some jersey milk down at the produce stand the other day and skimmed the cream off of it yesterday. Time to break out a tub of those blackberries Harold picked a month ago.  

Normal people scare me. But not as much as I scare them.....


[ Parent ]
I'll join you. (0.00 / 0)
I've never thought to try cream on cornbread. I think I'll try this tonight.

[ Parent ]
It's good (4.00 / 1)
I make my cornbread with vanilla, nutmeg and cinamon if I'm going to use it like that. When it comes out of the oven cut immediately, split the pieces and slather with butter, drizzle with honey, let the butter and honey sink into the corn bread for a minute or so, then pour on the cream. If you're not worried about calories, use heavy or extra heavy whipping cream.

Course, if you were worried about calories ya probably wouldn't be eatin' a passle 'o cornbread anyway.....

Corn bread is good this way with ice cream too. Kind of like ice cream and cake.

Normal people scare me. But not as much as I scare them.....


[ Parent ]
I've got a different take on the raw milk situation (4.00 / 2)
I wonder if the regulators are so 'on' about raw milk because if that milk becomes very popular and widely available in stores it'll be the big dairies that sell it into those markets.

Here in Oregon it's legal to sell raw milk from cows, sheep and goats as long as you have no more than 3 cows milking or 9 sheep or goats milking and I think it has to be at least their second lactation, so even if I wanted to, I couldn't sell raw goat's milk this year or next as this will be my goats' first lactation. You also are not allowed to advertise that you have raw milk for sale.

I've wondered for quite some time now, since I've been reading David's blog The Complete Patient.

If raw milk was distributed state wide, or nationally by these big food processors, which is where most of the milk in this country goes, and given that it's easier for raw milk to be contaminated by one or more pathogens than pasturized, you could have a huge problem. Of course, with a very small dairy there's still a risk but as Jill stated in her article, that risk is orders of magnitude smaller if for no other reason than the distribution is severely limited by the amount of production a small dairy can do.

One thing I've noticed about food regulators and other people involved in the design of things like the food safety bills, is that most of them only see one level of production, the large scale producers and manufacturers. Fortunately not all of these people are like this, excemptions for small farms selling direct to the public is an example of the fact that not everyone automatically thinks big when they think of farming and food production. But most of them appear to only think big scale.

I don't know if this is because the bulk of the farms/food manufacturers that these people come into contact with are large scale or if they just don't understand that there are different risk levels or risk types associated with large scale and small scale. Perhaps they know that there are differences but have a hard time understanding the two.

I really don't think that the regulators actually want to get rid of the small farms and producers. I think they actually are trying to keep people safe.

Normal people scare me. But not as much as I scare them.....


Lobbying Disclosure Reports (4.00 / 2)
As an independent lobbyist working on a food safety related issue, disclosure reports do not even begin to tell you what a company is lobbying on. The only way someone could be penalized for not disclosing an issue they are working on would be if a staffer reported them - and this must be done in writing with the express consent of the Member/Senator. In the case of Monsanto it would be very unlikely to happen.

Sadly it was policy at a firm I was with in 2007 that disclosure reports are to be as minimal and vague as possible; Do not list unless the client has taken a public stance on the issue and there's no way we can deny it.

Incidentally the penalties for failing to file a disclosure report are only for "willful refusal" to do so, not because you may have "forgotten" which is the new loophole.  


express consent of the Member/Senator (0.00 / 0)
That violates every good government precept I can think of.

Checking congressional approval polls,

Approval of Congress Hits Four-Year High, Fueled by Dems, 39%, Gallup, March 2009.

Approval of Congress Remains Steady at 37%, Gallup, May 2009.

Real Clear Politics latest, down from spring, but still higher than last year. 29% isn't good, though. Perhaps they're trying to return to the shoe-size approval ratings they had in 2008.


[ Parent ]
Thanks for your comment. nt (0.00 / 0)


[ Parent ]
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