Monday, February 22, 2010

Why Can't Raw Milk Advocates Aknowledge the Risk Their Products Pose?

A piece by David Gumpert at Grist argues on behalf of the raw milk industry in its new challenge to FDA rules banning its sale in interstate commerce. I won't go over all the details of raw milk again (you can look back at previous posts on the subject), but this piece caught my attention for the way it willfully misrepresents the risks of raw milk consumption. Gumpert cites CDC data showing that there were very few absolute cases of illness and death associated with raw milk in 2007, and tries to use this data to prove that raw milk isn't dangerous. After all, he says, more people die from being struck by lightning on golf courses each year than from consuming raw milk. I left the following comment, reprinted here in its entirety:

“More people are killed each year from lightning strikes on golf courses than die from milkborne illnesses.”

Arguments like this do nothing for the credibility of raw milk proponents. The fact is that the absolute number of illnesses and deaths related to a food consumed by a very small minority of people is a somewhat useless number - the fact that few people die from eating something that few people even consume doesn't make it safe. There may be reasonable arguments regarding the legality of FDA regulation of raw milk, but the argument that raw milk is somehow safer than pasteurized milk (as the comparison of mortality rates in the CDC numbers seems to suggest), is not one of them. Consider that from 1990 to 2006 unpasteurized milk was responsible for nearly 70% of foodborne illness outbreaks attributed to milk. More than twice as many outbreaks over 16 years is convincing enough, but only consider that unpasteurized milk consumption is almost statistically insignificant compared with that of conventional milk, and it is hard to even pretend that raw milk isn't demonstrably more dangerous. (Source: CSPI Outbreak Alert! 2008)

As a proponent of freedom of choice, I find myself generally supporting the right of individuals to consume raw milk as long as they are aware of the risks involved. What I don't support is the misrepresentation of these risks, and what I don't understand is why raw milk activists are choosing the battle they are (fighting for freedom to sell their product across state lines) when the most compelling arguments for raw milk's safety are that local, small-scale production allow a short supply chain and an intimate farmer-customer relationship.

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