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It’s time to talk about milk.

It’s time to talk about milk.
May 24, 2013 Mary Jo


The simple fact is that right now, in a courthouse 30 miles from where I sit, a farmer is on trial for selling his products to informed, consenting consumers.  Let me say that again.  A peaceful man performed a trade that’s been collectively recognized as legitimate and vital for the last 12,000 years. Informed persons, not able to perform that same trade themselves, not only sought out his product, but went out of their way to procure it for themselves and their families.  To say that they gave their consent is to make an understatement of grand proportions.

Because that product was unprocessed milk, a substance treated as illicit in the state of Wisconsin, that peaceful farmer finds himself in the Sauk County courthouse facing up to 30 months in jail and fines upwards of $10,000.  But technically this case isn’t about milk – raw or otherwise.  He’s being tried for operating without the proper licenses.  The fact that a farmer can not get a license to sell raw milk to informed, consenting individuals in the state of Wisconsin has to be danced around in that courtroom, as all mention of raw milk has been strictly prohibited by pre-trial hearings.  Every time the subject comes up, the jury is ushered out of the room, a sad parade that’s happened about a dozen times so far in the trial, reports say.

You may, like the majority of consumers, find the notion of exposure to raw milk a risk you’re not willing to take. But don’t think for even a second that this case doesn’t have bearing over what you put onto your plate.  Even if you have no desire whatsoever for raw milk, I implore you to ask why you have lost the right to make that choice for yourself.  The authorities cite safety and consumer protection as their justification for the criminalization of failure to pasteurize dairy products.  And rightfully so, even raw milk advocates contend, when talking about the centralized system of dairy distribution that commingles milk from a multitude of herds and geographical regions.  There would be no possible way to ensure the safety of that milk without pasteurization.  It would indeed be criminal to slip raw milk into that mix, unbeknownst to consumers and regulators alike.  For that protection, I am grateful.

But I choose not to buy milk from the status quo dairy supply chain.  You see, I witness on a daily basis the difference that fresh air, sunshine, grass, and bugs make in the quality of my eggs.  I’m far from alone in this; I daresay anyone who’s ever compared true farm fresh, free-range eggs to mainstream factory-produced ones can attest to the dramatic differences in taste and color.  The same is true for milk.  Grassfed milk bears little comparison to the grocery store variety.  The color is different; literally “cream” in color, like the pale-yellow-tinged paint chip by the same name, not the snow-white commodity in the pint cartons bearing the prefix “whipping.”  I was shocked to discover cream that was actually cream-colored!  And the taste?  It is so good that I jump through great hurdles, at great expense, to procure a regular supply for my family.  The flavor of unheated milk is matchless, we think, and we’ve become a house full of regular milk-drinkers.  And because this milk has not been heat-treated, it retains the vast portfolio of vitamins, minerals, enzymes (proteins) so carefully balanced by Mother Nature.  Because the milk has not been homogenized, I’m able to skim off the decadent cream for our morning coffee or to make my own sour cream.  And bacteria?  We understand that by foregoing the process of pasteurization, we are risking exposure to a whole laundry list of potentially dangerous microorganisms.  No one will deny that risk.  But it’s a risk I personally mitigate by looking my dairy farmer in the eye on a regular basis.  By visiting the farm, observing the condition of the cows, even casually.  Most importantly, I trust my farmer, whose family enjoys the same milk I do, whose credibility and competence I’ve vetted for myself.

We believe that raw milk, specifically grassfed raw milk, is the best choice for our family.  The State of Wisconsin and the dairy industry, among other giants, assert that it’s just not safe for me to make that choice.  “Father knows best” might as well be the slogan for this governmental oversight. Raw milk advocates have mounted scientifically quantifiable evidence to support their claims just as the opposing regulatory and industry factions have done.  Still, a learned person is not authorized to make the decisions about what ultimately shows up on their plate.  “Trust Father!” the machine chants.  “Anyone who doesn’t is in the lunatic fringe!”

But Father – my mother remembers when you advised against breastfeeding, my sister received vaccinations mandated by you that were later pulled off the market for safety reasons.  We are constantly bombarded with recalls of food linked to disease outbreaks, food regulated under your “safety” umbrella.  Your promises of food safety are nothing more than a mirage.

Father – your safety record is abysmal!  Why, exactly, should I trust you?  It seems like you’ve already got enough oversight responsibilities on your plate.  The truth is, you can’t guarantee the safety of our food; no one can.  You can promote truth in labeling.  You can mandate good practices, but you can’t do so with a one-size-fits-all glove.  You can encourage informed consent.  You can cover your ass with a simple disclaimer and then get the hell out of my kitchen.

You are already in the business of doing this, Father!  It is not possible for me to accidentally order sushi (raw meat) or un-cooked or under-cooked meat in a restaurant without being reminded of the risk of food-borne pathogens.  Every menu offering meat cooked to order, by your law, bears a disclaimer.  Yet you still allow me to make that choice.  You allow me to buy raw meat from the supermarket – how can you possibly be sure that I’ll cook it properly or in time?  You can’t. That is not, in fact, your responsibility.  Your responsibility ended after you warned me – from then on, my safety was up to me.  And cigarettes, which you allow me to buy, albeit warned, though there is no lingering doubt that they contain carcinogens?  That is freedom, even if it’s one I choose not to enjoy.

To be absolutely clear, this is not about trying to convert anyone to the Church of Raw Milk.  Drink it or not, I could care less.  Raw milk is merely a canary in the coal mine.  This is about the simple human right to feed oneself and one’s family.  Most of us delegate the physical work of doing so to others, compensating them with money just as we are compensated for our own specialized work.  It is, in fact, illegal for most of us to do so – to raise our own chicken, or eggs, or meat – because of zoning restrictions.  Is it legal where you live to keep a laying hen? If you wanted to, would you be allowed to butcher your own chicken? We are losing the freedom to feed ourselves as we see fit. 

That just plain makes me angry, Father.

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