The War Over Raw Milk: A Battle Heats Up

In the holy war over raw milk, the lives of our children are at stake, or so the faithful on either side of the battlefield assert. And, if you had been at the Rawesome food buying club on June 30, when Los Angeles police officers, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Food & Drug Administration and at least one Canadian agency knocked on the door, guns drawn, you might believe the war was more literal than figurative. As one Rawesome member said, "Why do you need guns?" when the enemy is, as far as anyone can tell, millions of microbes too small for the human eye to see, and surely, for the man-made bullet to destroy.

The FDA has long banned interstate sales of raw milk, and many states restrict or prohibit the sale of raw milk entirely. Raw milk drinkers and would-be sellers, who had previously purchased raw dairy products through legal loopholes began fighting back in early 2010, filing suit against the FDA claiming that banning interstate sales is unconstitutional. The FDA responded in late April, insisting that "plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to obtain any food they wish." The case is now pending while the crackdowns continue.

The Raw Milk Debate

Raw milk is milk that has not been heated to at least 145 degrees, a temperature sufficient to kill the living things present in all mammals' milk. These enzymes and bacteria have been shownto strengthen the immune system, develop healthy bacteria in the intestines and reduce the chances of everything from respiratory disease to obesity. Anything that yogurt manufacturers say about the "good" bacteria in yogurt is also true of raw milk.

Pasteurization, on the other hand, destroys both the good and the bad bacteria (like E. coli); it, along with homogenization (a process in which the fat globules in cream are broken to such a small size that they remain suspended evenly in the milk), allows milk to be transported over great distances and have a much longer shelf life. The widespread use of pasteurization and homogenization meant that dairies no longer needed to deal directly with consumers, as in the days of the milkman delivering glass bottles to your doorstep.

As the FDA sees it, the most important benefit of pasteurization is the virtual elimination of the dangers of bacterial infections. It was a huge concern in the late nineteenth century, as dairies moved closer to cities to provide nourishment for the newly industrial and urban population. But the concentrated quarters of the cows and a change in diet caused disease to start spreading. Pasteurization, say scientists, greatly reduced its spread.

The FDA officially banned interstate sales of raw milk in 1987, but it wasn't until 2006 that the so-called "crackdown" began. Agricultural departments in several states, with the help of the FDA, started to stage raids of small dairies and buying clubs that were "replete with undercover agents, sting operations, surprise raids, questionable test-lab results, mysterious illnesses, propaganda blitzes, and grand jury investigations," writes journalist David Gumpert, who has followed the raw milk war and written a book on the topic.

A Movement Takes Shape

As early as the 1970s, proponents of healthy eating and sick people in search of cures began to consume raw milk as a health-giving tonic. At the time, Dr. Aajonus Vonderplanitz (along with cookbook author Sally Fallon) came to the conclusion that drinking raw milk from cows who are raised on a ruminant's diet -- grass, and clover, and not much else -- and treated well could be the basis for the most nutritious possible diet -- and a movement was born.

Vonderplanitz says he has been "fighting" the government's efforts against raw milk since 1977. He started an organization known as the Right To Choose Healthy Food, where he's taught raw foodists how they can sidestep the rules governing commerce, and especially interstate commerce, by organizing into private clubs and leasing animals. Cow lessees pay upfront, and pay ongoing "boarding fees" for the board, care, and feeding of the animals, and harvesting of the product through milking. As Vonderplanitz sees it, those who consume the raw milk from the animal that they are leasing are not subject to the jurisdiction of the states' agricultural and commerce departments, and the FDA, which, in many states, restricts or even bans the sale of raw milk to consumers.

Vonderplanitz's organization also runs the Rawesome Club in Venice, California, and has chapters throughout the U.S. and "a few" in Canada. The private buying club, which sells only raw foods and for which you must pay a membership fee, and sign a waiver, to join, was challenged once before. In 2005, an official from the Los Angeles County Department of Health came onto the property. The officer examined the food and issued a citation to the organization because it did not have a health permit, for having food without a label and other charges. (Vonderplanitz rejects his need for a health permit because he says Rawesome is not conducting commerce.)

Vonderplanitz wrote a letter to the County Department of Health on July 22, 2005 asserting that the health official was illegally trespassing, and that the hearing notice for the day after the visit was "without legal merit." He never heard back, he says, until June 30, 2010.

Guns and Dairy

Shortly after Rawesome opened on June 30, nearly a dozen officers of the LAPD (with guns drawn), a senior investigator for the L.A. City District Attorney; a L.A. Environmental Health Specialist for the Environmental Health Food and Milk Program Food Inspection Bureau; an investigator for the U.S. FDA, Los Angeles District; a consumer safety officer for the USFDA Import Operations Branch Los Angeles District; and a supervising special investigator for the California State Animal Health and Food Safety Services of California Department of Food and Agriculture; and two other individuals without business cards who identified themselves as being with, respectively, the FBI and the Canada department of agriculture loudly knocked on the door, Rawesome members say. The officers searched the premises and seized 17 large coolers of milk and other dairy products.

The search warrant claims that the property "was used as the means of committing a felony." The only items listed on the search warrant were dairy products. On the same day, a farmer who provides raw goat milk to Rawesome members was also raided by about 20 government agents. Her computer was seized; her third computer, that is, two previous computers having been seized, and never returned, in 2008 and 2009.

Besides listing the agencies involved, Sandi Gibbons, the public information officer for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, would only say that the case was initiated by the California FDA, and that it was "in connection with a continuing criminal investigation involving state and local investigators."

As Dangerous as Romaine, Pistachios and Sushi?

Even Bill Marler, an attorney who has made his name representing victims of food borne illnesses, especially raw milk, has written recently that the FDA's actions don't make sense given the comparatively small number of the outbreaks of illness from raw dairy products -- less than 1% of foodborne outbreaks. Marler asked on his blog last month, "is raw milk treated unfairly? Have health departments brought the hammer down on raw milk, while giving a free-pass to other dangerous products?"His answer was, "yes."

On occasion, people do get sick from drinking raw milk. But the number of people sickened by raw milk compared to other foods does not seem to warrant the FDA's focused, expensive campaign. Marler highlights five cases of spinach and romaine lettuce-linked illnesses in which, despite the sickening of about 200 people, there were no recalls or publicity initiated by the FDA. Yet, while a few pages on the FDA's web site detail "The Dangers of Raw Milk," there are none on the "Dangers of Spinach" (or lettuce, or tomatoes, or green onions.)

No government regulations of interstate commerce in peanuts, kale, or cantaloupes have been suggested, despite the much greater number of people sickened by consuming these foods. Sushi, a raw food that provides a greater opportunity for illness than raw milk, is legal in all 50 states, too. French restaurants everywhere serve steak tartare, a chopped raw beef dish, with so far nary so much as an hors d'oeuvres plate seized. Yet the FDA stands firm. And though even former FDA food safety chief David Acheson recommends eliminating the interstate sales ban (on grounds that "motivated individuals" will continue to purchase raw milk, no matter what, increasing the danger of contamination), it appears the agency will, eventually, have its day in court.

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