They’re coming for your cheese

In much of Europe, fresh, raw milk cheeses are available and loved by cheese connoisseurs. In the US the FDA requires raw milk cheeses to be aged for at least 60 days prior to sale, which limits our options but is better than nothing. David Gumpert reports that now even that option may be taken away from us:

According to a report in an industry publication, Cheese Reporter, a top dairy official at the FDA, Stephen Sundlof, director of its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) believes that the 60-day aging period “is not effective in reducing pathogens in raw milk cheeses.” There needs to be “some other risk management steps” that could be applied. Sundlof said at a dairy conference last month. What makes him think that the 60-day period isn’t effective in reducing pathogens? A little birdie must have told him so.

A change in the aging period regulation could put a crimp on production of a number of raw milk soft cheeses like brie and camembert, among others. Some producers already struggle with the 60-day aging requirement, since certain cheeses are best sold sooner than that, and letting them age for 60 days simply reduces their viable shelf lives.

Moreover, the FDA isn’t proposing to extend the aging period, but rather to require processing of the milk, including pasteurization of milk for certain cheeses.

Unfortunately the Cheese Reporter story is no longer at the link so I have few details, but this looks like another overreaction from the FDA.

Raw milk battle heats up in WI

Wisconsin may become the next state to legalize raw milk sales to the general public:

Hundreds of raw milk advocates packed a legislative hearing Wednesday, demanding the right to buy and sell unpasteurized dairy products that some claim have powerful health benefits but that detractors call dangerous.

Bills in the state Legislature would allow consumers to buy raw milk and other dairy products directly from farms and exempt farmers from liability if someone becomes ill from pathogens in the milk.

As expected, health authorities are opposing the bill on the grounds that they know better than consumers what people should put in their bodies. The Farm Bureau is opposed as well, wanting to prevent reports of tainted milk of any kind from getting into the news. It will be a victory for individual liberty and food rights if this passes the legislature.

I’m less sure of the part of the bill freeing farmers from liability. There should probably be some assumption of risk for raw milk consumers, but removing liability could end up making raw milk less safe. Unfortunately the article is short on specifics about this aspect of the bill.

[Thanks to Ryan at Inertia Wins for the pointer.]

Previously:
Raw milk rebellion

A victory for food freedom

Some great news yesterday for Michael Schmidt, an Ontario raw milk dairy farmer who risked jail time challenging Canadian regulators. In a remarkable ruling, the court decided that his program by which customers by shares in cow ownership in exchange for the milk they produce is a legitimate enterprise not covered by existing law. In broader context, it seems an encouraging precedent for allowing consumers to opt out of restrictive safety regulations:

Although it is not illegal to consume raw milk in Canada, selling or distributing violates laws that require pasteurization of most commercial milk products.

The Schmidt case, which began when his farm was raided in 2006, has captivated food-rights academics and advocates in Canada, and around the world, who argue the court’s decision will ripple well beyond the raw-milk community. At its crux, they argue, the case is really about the extent to which consumers should be free to buy foods, however rarefied, and whether constitutional rights stretch as far as the grocery basket, farmer’s market and the people who own shares in – but do not live on – food-producing farms.

[Thanks to Kimberly Hartke for the tip. My article on raw milk for Reason is here, and a visit to a Virginia cow share program here.]

A federal ban on raw milk?

The FDA already forbids the interstate sale of unpasteurized milk. A section tucked into the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 threatens to give the agency new powers over intrastate commerce, overriding the rights of consumers and state laws allowing its sale. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund explains:

HR 2749 requires the HHS Secretary to issue “science-based performance standards . . . applicable to foods or food classes.” The Secretary is to “identify the most significant foodborne contaminants and the most significant resulting hazards . . . and to minimize to an acceptable level, prevent or eliminate the occurrence of such hazards.” [8a] FDA would have the power to make pasteurization of all raw milk a performance standard. Based on both its public statements and its record of taking enforcement actions against farmers, FDA is vehemently opposed to the consumption of raw milk and would like to ban its distribution.

Even if FDA does not issue a performance standard requiring pasteurization, the likelihood is that if HR 2749 passes into law, the agency will be increasing its enforcement actions against raw milk producers whose products cross state lines. FDA has indicated that raw milk is a priority item with the agency; with the passage of HR 2749, it would have much greater resources to go after raw milk than it did before. FDA could take enforcement action directly or through state agencies funded by FDA.

The bill doesn’t explicitly mention pasteurization, but if that’s an accurate reading of the law it could effectively end legal raw milk sales in the US. My case for removing government barriers to buying raw milk was published at Reason last year.

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.]

Latte crudo 1 euro

Jill Santopietro goes shopping at Eataly in Turin:

What really caught my attention wasn’t the fresh-baked breads, the fish market next to the fish grill or the cheese stand near the cozy pizza and wine bar, but a large, unassuming box near the bread section. On it was a life-size photo of an adorable cow with a sign that read, “Latte crudo 1 euro,” and a newspaper article about the health benefits of raw milk. Every morning a local farmer delivers his cows’ milk to Eataly, where it’s pumped into the cooler. As with bulk filtered-water fixtures at many Whole Foods (sorry, New Yorkers, I haven’t seen any here yet), customers either bring their own bottle or buy a new one and fill it up. One euro for a liter of fresh raw milk? Incredible.

And in the former Carpano vermouth factory, no less. I must go!

Presumably the loyal customers spending 1 euro for raw milk aren’t falling ill every weekend. Where government doesn’t push raw milk onto a black market, people purchase within an acceptable level of risk. It’s better than raiding farms and forcing customers onto shady internet sites, yes?

Previously:
Raw milk rebellion

Crackdowns on the white stuff

A raw milk arrest in CA:

A milk processing plant near Santa Paula was shut down last week after allegedly selling dairy products without a license or pasteurization, authorities said Friday.

Sharon Ann Palmer, 48, was arrested in connection with the plant called Healthy Family Farms at 6780 Wheeler Canyon Road, Ventura County Sheriff’s Department officials said in a prepared statement.

Members of the department’s Agricultural Crimes Unit and other local health agencies began an investigation of Palmer in the first week of December and found she was operating the plant without a license and selling potentially unpasteurized milk products at farmers’ markets in Ventura, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties, according to the statement.

And in other California news, Organic Pastures Dairy, whose case I profiled for Reason, has had to accept a plea with the feds and cease selling unpasteurized milk across state lines. 2008′s final days continue to show that this is a terrible year for raw milk producers and consumers.

The FDA’s trust problem

This is interesting:

Two months ago, federal food regulators said they were unable to set a safety threshold for the industrial chemical melamine in baby formula. Now, however, they found a way to settle on a standard that allows for higher levels than those found in U.S.-made batches of the product.

Food and Drug Administration officials on Friday set a threshold of 1 part per million of melamine in formula, provided a related chemical is not present. They insisted the formulas are safe.

The development comes days after The Associated Press reported that FDA tests found traces of melamine in the infant formula of one major U.S. manufacturer and cyanuric acid, a chemical relative, in the formula of a second major maker. The contaminated samples, which both measured at levels below the new standard, were analyzed several weeks ago…

Dr. Stephen Sundlof, the FDA’s director of food safety, said Friday the agency was confident in the 1 part per million level for either of the chemicals alone, even though there have been no new scientific studies since October that would give regulators more safety data. He had no ready explanation for why the level was not set earlier…

Those three formula makers manufacture more than 90 percent of all infant formula produced in the United States.

The agency had left the impression of a zero tolerance on Oct. 3 when it stated: “FDA is currently unable to establish any level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in infant formula that does not raise public health concerns.”

I have no reason to think that this is a bad decision, but it’s certainly a telling one. Two months ago the FDA had zero tolerance for melamine in formula. Then as soon it’s revealed that formula from major corporate producers contains melamine they adjust the standard with no new scientific study. Contrast this with the agency’s current crackdown on small raw milk farmers and it’s easy to see why natural food advocates are so skeptical of FDA warnings about unpasteurized dairy.

[Hat tip to Seth Roberts.]

Law and Order: Dairy Unit

This is shaping up to be a really bad year for raw milk dairy farmers:

A California organic dairy producer vows to fight a federal government lawsuit that seeks to bar his company from shipping raw milk products across state lines.

“The (Food and Drug Administration) is reaching way beyond its authority to intimidate us and what we do, but we will not be intimidated,” said Mark McAfee, owner of the Organic Pastures Dairy Company in Fresno, Calif.

The U.S. Justice Department filed suit against McAfee in a U.S. district court Thursday, Nov. 20, claiming that he endangered public health by violating a federal law against interstate commerce in unpasteurized milk.

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which oversees FDA, is also participating in the lawsuit…

According to the federal government’s lawsuit, McAfee circumvented restrictions on the interstate shipment of raw milk by labeling outgoing boxes as “pet food.” Unpasteurized milk is allowed to cross state lines as long as it’s used for that purpose.

However, the retail products within the boxes did not mention pet food and the labeling language was clearly directed at human consumers, according to the government’s complaint.

The lawsuit contends that an employee at Organic Pastures Dairy unwittingly acknowledged the pet food label was a “legal loophole for the firm to be able to ship the product out of state” to an undercover FDA investigator.

This is the culmination of a long investigation by the feds, who apparently have nothing more pressing on their plates than sending undercover agents to purchase unpasteurized milk. Mark sent me copies of earlier subpoenas investigators delivered to his employees. They’re really going to ridiculous lengths. As John Schwenkler described it for Doublethink:

The second time gun-toting, badge-flashing federal agents came to visit Amanda Hall, at least she had some idea of what it was about. A few weeks earlier, after she had gotten home from her job at the Organic Pastures dairy farm in Fresno, California, and was about to head off to school, a pair of men met her at the door and handed her a subpoena to testify before a grand jury of the United States District Court for reasons they chose not to divulge. (“Don’t talk about it to anybody,” she was told.) They had gotten her name, as well as that of one of her co-workers, who was similarly visited at home and subpoenaed, by calling the dairy and recording conversations in which they posed as potential customers. Now, with the subpoenas served and the court date coming up, they had a few preliminary questions to ask her.

Well, not exactly a few. Hall, a 23-year-old mother of one who manages Accounts Receivables and acts as a sales consultant for Organic Pastures, sat with the men—who identified themselves as special agents of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations—for 15 minutes as they repeated the same question about the legality of her employer’s interstate shipping procedures, “trying,” she says, “to have me change my answer.” They didn’t get what they wanted from the session, but as they were about to leave, one of the agents suggested Hall wear a wire to a meeting with her boss. “It’s funny,” she says. “I’d been sitting there telling them that these people were basically my family,” and now she was being asked to spy on them. “How much is it worth to you?” she asked, just to see what they would say. The answer came (“It wouldn’t be millions, but we could make it worth your while”), Hall politely refused, and the agents went off into the night. A few days later, just 24 hours before the grand jury was scheduled to convene, Hall was informed that her testimony would no longer be needed.

The FDA undoubtedly believes it’s protecting people by pursuing this case, but if anything it just shows the futility of banning raw milk sales. Suppose the DOJ wins in court and Mark can no longer ship anything out of state. His customers aren’t likely to give up drinking raw milk. They’ll find other dairymen to sell it to them or buy it online from less reputable operations, further developing the black market for raw milk. And they’ll distrust the government’s health warnings even more than they do now, viewing this as yet another example of persecution by ill-informed regulators in bed with big agricultural interests.

It would be far better for regulators to focus on making sure the pasteurized milk consumed by the vast majority of Americans is safe and let raw milk sales be legal, esoteric, and visible. This would make it easier for consumers to get accurate information and to trace disease outbreaks when they occur. Case in point: News reports of a 2006 E. coli lawsuit against Mark’s farm are on the first page of Google results if you search for “Organic Pastures raw milk” (no quotes). Dairies that sell unpasteurized milk to the public know that this kind of coverage can kill their businesses, so they’re extremely careful in the way they run their farms. You don’t get that kind of accountability in a black market.

Instead of that sensible approach we have undercover operations against McAfee in California, raids on Mennonite farmer Mark Nolt in Pennsylvania, and Michael Schmidt facing up to six months in jail in Ontario, CA for defying court orders. All for what? To keep consenting adults from drinking the milk of their choice. Regardless of how you feel about pasteurization, that’s an affront to free society.

Update: The article also notes that Organic Pastures has already ceased shipping ordinary raw milk over state lines because of the FDA’s earlier threats. They currently ship only colostrum, milk secreted immediately following the birth of a calf, which Mark claims is classified as a dietary supplement rather than as food.

Previously:
Raw milk rebellion
The man ain’t got no cultures

Crispy raw milk

I’ve got a brief update about the Canadian version of the raw milk wars over at Crispy on the Outside.

Mark Nolt raided again

Not many details yet, but this is from an email from the Pennsylvania Independent Consumers and Farmers Association:

Today, September 12, 2008, between 10:00 and 10:30 a.m. Mark Nolt and his Family were invaded and their farm was raided for the third time by Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and Bill Chirdon. Approximately $20,000 in food items were confiscated along with Marks crates they used to haul the foods out in.

Mark’s first arrest was the lede in my raw milk article for Reason Online.

At least they didn’t shoot the dogs

The second time gun-toting, badge-flashing federal agents came to visit Amanda Hall, at least she had some idea of what it was about. A few weeks earlier, after she had gotten home from her job at the Organic Pastures dairy farm in Fresno, California, and was about to head off to school, a pair of men met her at the door and handed her a subpoena to testify before a grand jury of the United States District Court for reasons they chose not to divulge. (“Don’t talk about it to anybody,” she was told.) They had gotten her name, as well as that of one of her co-workers, who was similarly visited at home and subpoenaed, by calling the dairy and recording conversations in which they posed as potential customers. Now, with the subpoenas served and the court date coming up, they had a few preliminary questions to ask her.

Well, not exactly a few. Hall, a 23-year-old mother of one who manages Accounts Receivables and acts as a sales consultant for Organic Pastures, sat with the men—who identified themselves as special agents of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations—for 15 minutes as they repeated the same question about the legality of her employer’s interstate shipping procedures, “trying,” she says, “to have me change my answer.” They didn’t get what they wanted from the session, but as they were about to leave, one of the agents suggested Hall wear a wire to a meeting with her boss. “It’s funny,” she says. “I’d been sitting there telling them that these people were basically my family,” and now she was being asked to spy on them. “How much is it worth to you?” she asked, just to see what they would say. The answer came (“It wouldn’t be millions, but we could make it worth your while”), Hall politely refused, and the agents went off into the night. A few days later, just 24 hours before the grand jury was scheduled to convene, Hall was informed that her testimony would no longer be needed.

That’s from John Schwenkler’s excellent article about crackdowns on raw milk for Doublethink. Read the whole thing here.

Will civil disobedience pay off?

CBS reports that Pennsylvania lawmakers have introduced legislation that would liberalize the state’s raw milk laws, allowing farmers to sell unpasteurized dairy products of all kinds, not just milk and aged cheese. If the bill passes, it will be thanks in large part to Mark Nolt, the Mennonite farmer who has been arrested, convicted, and had more $20,000 of his equipment seized by farm officials. His civil disobedience and unflinching defense of the freedom to sell directly to consumers has been admirable and it would be great to see it pay off.

Nolt’s case was the lede in my raw milk article for Reason.

Why organic milk lasts longer

I’d never noticed that organic milk has a longer shelf life, but this is interesting:

Organic milk lasts longer because producers use a different process to preserve it. According to the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, the milk needs to stay fresh longer because organic products often have to travel farther to reach store shelves since it is not produced throughout the country.

The process that gives the milk a longer shelf life is called ultrahigh temperature (UHT) processing or treatment, in which milk is heated to 280 degrees Fahrenheit (138 degrees Celsius) for two to four seconds, killing any bacteria in it.

UHT pasteurization has a greater impact on flavor than the standard process, so, oddly enough, organic milk is in one way less natural than conventional.

[Thanks to Julie for the link.]

Coalition building fail

I was able to stop by the raw milk rally today after all. It was a small but enthusiastic group of people dedicated to defending the rights of consumers and farmers to exchange a natural product despite the government’s warnings of its dangers. It was a fun event and it was a pleasure meeting the people involved in this “raw milk rebellion.” Plus I got to enjoy another small taste of Hedgebrook Farm’s fresh, tasty milk.

One of the women there, happy to hear that I’d just written an article in favor of legalizing raw milk sales, asked me what other topics I cover. “I write often about the rights of smokers to enjoy tobacco,” I replied.

“Oh,” she said, suddenly dubious. “I used to know a tobacco farmer, and I understand that it’s his livelihood, but that’s a tough thing to support…”

Consistency is a rare thing.

Raw milk rally in DC

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend, but it should be an interesting experience:

FOOD NETWORK WANTS TO TELL YOUR STORY
Raw Milk Rally on Capitol Hill, Monday June 2

Dear Raw Milk Lovers:

The Food Network is working on a show about raw milk and how it has changed people’s lives. As a part of this, they want to show their viewers the political side of the raw milk battle. To do so they are hosting a raw milk rally and would like to invite you to demonstrate your support for raw milk, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, which will be filmed as part of a documentary about the growing consumer demand for raw milk.

This will be a chance to tell your personal story on national television, about how raw milk has helped you and your family achieve better health or heal from chronic disease. Or, why you feel it should be an available choice to all who want it. The main purpose of this event is to help spread the word via our stories to be aired on the Food Network.

CAPITOL HILL RAW MILK RALLY with Special Guest Speakers:

Richard Morris, Author of A Life Unburdened

Liz Reitzig, President of Maryland Independent Consumers and Farmers Association

DATE: Monday June 2, 2008

TIME: 9:45/ 10:00 am

WHAT TO BRING: Pro raw milk signs/t-shirts, raw milk fed babies, raw milk flyers, brochures etc. If you can, bring some raw milk in a cooler so we can offer tastings to passersby that would be great!

Real Milk Rocks T shirts (for $20.00) and A Life Unburdened books will be on sale at the event.

WHERE: Meet on 3rd Street SW Corner.

So we can get a feel for who is coming: Please email kimberly@hartkeonline.com if you are planning to attend.

A blow against CA raw milk

Raw milk dairy farmers in California have lost the restraining order that has been preventing the 10 coliform limit from taking effect:

A Superior Court judge said Friday that the state had a rational basis for creating legislation that imposes a higher safety standard for California’s two raw milk producers.

The two dairy operators — Organic Pastures of Fresno County and Claravale Farms of San Benito County — are battling to try to stop the state from enforcing the law that took effect last year, saying it will put them out of business.

The new law has been on hold since March, when Superior Court Judge Harry Tobias suspended it to hear arguments over whether to issue a preliminary injunction. Friday, the judge sided with the state.

Last month, two scientists testifying on behalf of the dairies argued that the new standard is unnecessary and that raw milk naturally contains helpful bacteria that neutralize bad bacteria.

But on Friday, the state presented its own experts who countered the dairy supporters, saying the new standard is designed to protect the public from food-related illness.

A rational basis standard is easy to meet, so this isn’t a very surprising ruling. The dairies could still win on appeal and will continue working with Dean Florez to introduce replacement legislation that allows a higher coliform count in exchange for additional safety standards.

California’s fight over raw milk standards was a major topic in my article for Reason.