Authoritarian attitudes at the FDA

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal featured a good article about the FDA’s renewed crackdown on raw milk sales. In it we get confirmation that the agency may indeed tighten its rule allowing sale of raw milk cheeses after 60 days of aging. It also includes a few quotes from John Sheehan, the media-shy director of dairy food safety:

“Raw milk is inherently dangerous and should not be consumed by anyone, at any time, for any reason,” says John Sheehan, director of the FDA’s division of plant- and dairy-food safety.

This is a completely unscientific statement. What does “inherently dangerous” mean? Pasteurization has been widespread for only about a century. Was the unpasteurized milk that humans drank for thousands of years before that “inherently dangerous” or simply less dangerous than modern pasteurized milk? Should it not even be consumed so a person can discover for himself if the benefits outweigh the costs? Sheehan’s conclusion has no scientific basis and ignores diversity of tastes and risk tolerances.

There’s a lot of hype about the health benefits and safety of raw milk put out by its advocates, much of it not very scientific. The FDA could play a constructive role by informing consumers of the risks involved. But to do so it needs to stop alienating them by driving them into underground markets of true believers. Potential raw milk consumers might be more trusting of the agency if it wasn’t denying them their freedom and seeking to have their suppliers thrown into jail.

[Via ColdMud.]

Update: In the comments, Barzelay says it much better than I did:

This binary way of looking at food as either risky or not risky is never going to work because everything carries a risk, it’s just that risks are greater, or at least different, for different things. Moreover, it’s not as simple as pasteurizing food, because other risk factors can come into play: your pasteurized milk, if stored at improper temperatures, can have a much higher risk than raw milk. We need to embrace a more complex view of food-borne illness risks that puts more of the onus on the consumer. People need to be aware of the risks of what they’re eating.

Instead the FDA wants to be able to proclaim that all the food in the US is safe, or at least all the food available from typical big-business retailers. They should be doing the opposite! All food is risky! Now tell people how to manage those risks.

Comments

  1. Barzelay says:

    It would be more accurate to say that consumption of raw milk carries inherent risks.

    The problem with that statement is that you can replace “raw milk” with nearly any other foodstuff and the statement holds true. This binary way of looking at food as either risky or not risky is never going to work because everything carries a risk, it’s just that risks are greater, or at least different, for different things. Moreover, it’s not as simple as pasteurizing food, because other risk factors can come into play: your pasteurized milk, if stored at improper temperatures, can have a much higher risk than raw milk. We need to embrace a more complex view of food-borne illness risks that puts more of the onus on the consumer. People need to be aware of the risks of what they’re eating.

    Instead the FDA wants to be able to proclaim that all the food in the US is safe, or at least all the food available from typical big-business retailers. They should be doing the opposite! All food is risky! Now tell people how to manage those risks.

  2. Zachary Skaggs says:

    Great quote–and great point, Jacob. Trust all’s well in Oregon.

  3. Jeff says:

    Just out of curiosity, which is more dangerous: raw milk, or raw oysters? I’d guess they were about the same if it didn’t favor raw milk a little bit. Raw seafood’s pretty damn risky, and you don’t see the FDA cracking down on raw oysters, do you?

  4. Jacob Grier says:

    @Jeff: It’s hard to do a direct comparison because so much of the raw milk market is underground, so we only have vague ideas of how many people are drinking it and many of the people who get sick may have bought their raw milk at a farm that’s not set up for it. Nonetheless the FDA cites 2 deaths from raw milk in the 10 year period from 1998-2008. It cites 15 deaths last year alone from oysters. The number of people eating oysters is much larger, but this suggests that oysters should be the greater priority.

    However, the FDA is in fact cracking down on raw oysters. The agency currently wants to ban sales of raw Gulf oysters during warm parts of the year, which Gulf states are opposing.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/12/health/policy/12oyster.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss

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