Connecticut cracks down on raw milk

The New York Times reports on fresh debates about unpasteurized milk in Connecticut, which currently has some of the nation’s most liberal regulations. Tragically, a recent E. coli outbreak traced to a raw dairy in the state led to at least seven illnesses, including two which put toddlers on dialysis (one of whom may suffer permanent kidney damage). The state is responding with a proposal to ban sales of raw milk anywhere but at farms and farmers markets.

The state is right to raise awareness of the risks of drinking unpasteurized milk. Though I’m obviously sympathetic to consumers’ right to buy it, the underground nature of the product has created a devoted community of boosters who emphasize health claims while downplaying dangers. Young children are especially at risk of illness, a fact that was apparently not presented to a few Connecticut parents.

This need for transparency is one reason I think that banishing raw milk from grocery stores could have unintended consequences. Grocers like Whole Foods have a strong incentive not to sell tainted products and the clout to demand safety standards from their suppliers. Breaking that chain and sending consumers directly to farms will result in there being many small, diverse providers without much brand recognition; it might actually be safer for one or two highly visible farms to dominate the market and have their reputations on the line in the event of an outbreak.

Speculation aside, the proposal is a clear infringement on the rights of farmers and consumers. There is no health-related justification for restricting sales to farms and markets. It’s a blatant attempt to restrict trade between consenting adults and would likely drive some raw dairies out of business. Government should limit itself to informing consumers, not standing between them and the products they wish to buy.

[Hat tip to Paul, who fearlessly drank raw milk with me in Virginia.]

Comments

  1. Matt says:

    Government should limit itself to informing consumers, not standing between them and the products they wish to buy.

    But I thought there was a market for information too… ;-)

    Seriously though, on the raw milk thing, I recently found out some good information on the health risks from a microbiologist/food scientist I happen to know. First, it’s significantly more dangerous to consumers than producers because people who live and work on the farm where the milk is produced are exposed to the same elements that make their way into the milk, and thus likely have pre-established tolerances that outside consumers don’t have.

    Second, when you allow mass sales of raw milk you usually end up mixing it all together from different farm sites. This is one of the biggest dangers as it allows any contamination from one farm to contaminate the entire supply. It also poses a problem because the individual contaminations and bacteria can compound each other, creating bigger and stronger dangers, and making the milk more risky than if it were single-source.

    Finally, it turns out raw milk is actually growing more and more risky because E. coli is rapidly mutating. Previous antibiotics and other preventative tools have grown less and less effective. It’s something that’s going to continue to be a growing risk.

    I didn’t know much before about the specific risks, but it seems like it’s something that’s just going to continue to get more and more dangerous. So I guess my question is: is there ever a point when you would say that a product is so dangerous that it shouldn’t be allowed into the market? I’m sure raw milk isn’t there yet, and things can be done to decrease the risk (e.g., no comingling of sources), but it might get there someday.

  2. Jacob Grier says:

    I’m curious about where your friend is getting information. It strikes me as generally correct, except for the part about combining lots of milk from many farms when you allow mass sales. He’s absolutely right that that was a problem when railroads and refrigeration first made large scale dairying possible, which is why pasteurization was such a boon to public health. But I’ve never heard of that happening in the contemporary raw milk market. Even California, one of the few others states that allows sale in stores, is dominated by just two farms that as far as I know produce all of their own milk.

    Antibiotic resistance is definitely a concern. This is due in part to their widespread use on farms. My guess is that many raw dairies don’t use antibiotics; whether or not this means that their cows are less likely to have resistant strains of E. coli I don’t know. In any case, that’s a very generalized problem our medicine is going to have to deal with. Whatever the solution is, it will probably apply to the food supply as well. Here, raw milk advocates might have a legitimate claim that using fewer antibiotics and exposing ourselves to more live cultures would be safer in the long-term.

  3. Matt says:

    Well she’s the president elect of the International Association for Food Protection… I don’t personally know about the comingling issue, but I guess I’m willing to take her word on the risk it poses, whether it’s currently going on or there’s just a future risk of it happening.

  4. Jacob Grier says:

    Yeah, I agree. It definitely would be a risk factor if it were happening. But the raw milk market is unlikely to ever become very large and the people who are into it like supporting local agriculture, so that’s pretty far down my list of concerns.

    I realized I didn’t answer your last question. The short answer is no, I wouldn’t ban products based solely on their dangers to the user. More dangerous products might require restrictions on minors or varying degrees of informed consent, but I don’t think its legitimate to prevent a consenting adult from assuming those risks.

  5. Chelsea says:

    Hey Jacob,
    I am a little confused on where you stand on the whole raw milk if you are pro raw milk or not. I recently started drinking raw milk for various reasons and although I was super-duper nervous to try it (because the FDA, USDA, the news, and your mom (in general) have always driven home the point that raw milk is ‘dangerous.’ I actually have enjoyed it and saw amazing benefits from it ie acne is gone ( which is amazing because I have tried every product known to mankind and NOTHING has worked but raw milk is heaven on earth!
    My question though, in todays world what is considered safe? We allow our animals that feed us to be injected with antibiotics, hormones, and stand in their manure. We have turned our food into a chemically engineered project that allows the industry to produce (for example) a chicken ready to be slaughtered in 30 days instead of 70+ (and bigger breasts than 60years ago because we americans like our white meat)). I mean does this not seem odd or gross??
    People are worried about these diseases laced in milk but if people actually ate food that was prepared and growed properly they would have proper immunities that would defend themselves from the microbes. We (USA) have so much technology yet, more and more people are getting sick from ingesting food that we buy at the supermarket and THI IS THE FOOD THAT IS SUPPOSED TO BE SAFE because it has been treated, bleached, processed, and pasturized that supposidly kills these dangerous microbes.
    Another thing that is interesting, these big name companies will have a breakout of e coli or samonella and are they shut down? Defiently not! All that happens is a recall- (yet these small mom and pop dairy farms are hasseled even though there is no substantial proof that their farm has had a outbreak of e coli. It is always “was most likely the cause”…. of the e coli out break ( even though the e coli was not found in the cows, manure of plant). If so let me know the book, article, ip address etc and woul love to be proven wrong. So any way what is your opinon on raw milk?

  6. Jacob Grier says:

    @Chelsea: I’m neither pro nor anti raw milk. I think people ought to be allowed to buy it. I think it’s tasty and may have some benefits. It also comes with some risk of contamination. Defining one’s tolerance for that risk is up to individuals, not to me.

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