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.]