Monday, February 1, 2010

The Raw Milk Question: Organic Pastures vs the FDA

Over at Food Safety News they ran an article this morning about Mark McAfee, the California dairy farmer duking it out with the FDA over his right to market and sell raw (unpasteurized) milk. Raw milk seems like quite the contentious topic lately, and it's increasingly looking like a banner issue for groups advocating people's right to eat what they please, even where there are real food safety concerns.

Personally, I'm torn on the whole raw milk thing. On the one hand, I'm almost always in favor of letting people make their own choices about food, as long as those choices are well-informed (that is the point of this blog). Raw milk is a health risk, but as long as you know that, I feel like it's your call, just like it's your right to order a medium-rare steak, or to go out to a disreputable sushi place for dinner. On the other hand, I can't help feeling like Mr. McAfee is picking the wrong fight. I can be sympathetic to raw milk producers in large part because the safety issues involved in raw milk consumption are usually mitigated by the local and personal scale of raw milk production and sale. People almost always know the farmer, have been to the farm, and can thus make informed judgments about whether the stuff is safe. But this doesn't seem like a battle for raw milk in general; this is a farmer trying to preserve his right to market and sell his unpasteurized milk across state lines via the internet.

According to the article:
McAfee takes umbrage at interstate restrictions on licensed raw milk for several reasons.

"The logic for this is dubious,' he says in his recently filed legal papers, "since the borders between states do not transform healthful foods into poison."

He also points out that distance is not an issue here since milk from cows on the California side of Lake Tahoe cannot be sold on the Nevada side of the lake. Yet milk from cows in Yreka, which is in the far reaches of northern California, can be transported to and sold in San Diego.

While I agree that distance, rather than an arbitrary line at the state border, might be the more relevant consideration, I still don't find myself agreeing with Mr. McAfee. The practical and legal considerations on the FDA's regulation of this product mean that banning its sale across state lines is a sensible middle ground. Without banning raw milk entirely (this is left to the states, as I understand it), the FDA is acknowledging that raw milk presents a real food safety issue. By banning interstate sales, the FDA effectively limits the possibility that vendors will be able to sell a potentially dangerous foodstuff to out-of-state customers who don't have full information about the farm, the product, or the state regulations under which the milk was produced. 

Would a national system of regulation for raw milk, like that employed for most other foodstuffs, be a better option? I have a hard time believing the raw milk advocates would be in favor of this sort of system, and I'm not convinced it would be effective anyway. At the end of the day, raw milk is exactly the sort of product that I think we should be buying locally and directly from the farm, if we're purchasing it at all. That seems like the only reliable way to be a fully informed buyer.

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