Currently the U.S. senate is considering the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (HR 875), which has been billed as a way to ensure the safety of food for Americans. HR 875 has been surrounded by controversy since its initial proposal in February 2009. At that time, the Internet was overloaded with rumors that the bill would outlaw backyard gardens, destroy farmers’ markets, and bring organic farming to an end. These rumors have since been cleared but some maintain that the bill is too broad, and by virtue of that, they claim, it will become troublesome to small farmers.
HR 875 is in the news again these days as dairy companies try to insert their agenda into the legislation. The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF)—which represent more than 85 percent of the dairy industry—have pushed the Senate to include raw milk and raw dairy products in the pending reform, whereas previously these goods were not subject to the same rigors that “conventional” milk is.
Don’t be deceived, however, by the dairy industry’s inclusive spirit; as usual, this is all about money. The IDFA and NMPF recognize the growing market for raw milk, the overwhelming majority (all?) of which is produced on a small, or even micro, scale. Despite, or perhaps because of, its small scale production, raw milk is seen by some as a threat to the entire dairy industry because they think its supposed inherent danger could ruin the reputation of all types of dairy. Thus, in an effort to push senators to include raw milk in the food safety reform, IDFA CEO Connie Tipton and NMPF CEP Jerry Kozac recently sent legislators a letter that included claims like the following: “Before pasteurization became widely utilized in the 1920s, human consumption of raw milk was one of the major sources of food borne illnesses and one of the primary causes of infant mortality.”
If Tipton and Kozac and their supporters get their way, raw dairy producers will be subject to the same food safety regulations as regular dairies. While some raw dairies would rise to the occasion, many raw dairies could potentially be forced to close down, doubly diminishing mega-milk’s perceived threat. Because they are often so small, raw dairies might find it hard to finance and implement the necessary practices by which they could be evaluated by the same standards as a dairy with hundreds or thousands of cows. But that does not mean that any given raw dairy product is any less safe.
Putting aside the fact that for thousands of years (until the late-nineteenth century) “milk” exclusively meant raw milk (and it was only in recent history, due to human actions, that raw milk became an issue), there are quite a few studies and even more testimonials that attest to raw milk’s equality, and often supremacy, to pasteurized milk.
Regardless of the loud yet misinformed opposition to raw milk, there is another downside to this scenario: agribusinesses’ use of food to profit to the maximum possible degree is unethical, period. One could argue that this is not inherently so, but only one who is invested could argue that it is not the practical truth. Ironically, if one explores the history of milk it becomes clear that it is the same profit-over-truth mentality that made raw milk dangerous in the first place. In the nineteenth century, farmers and processing plants were doing all sorts of unnatural and unhealthy things to their cows and their milk, with only their profit in mind. Now, seeing as raw dairy is a niche market with an extremely bad reputation amongst most people, it behooves everyone involved in the business to have a high standard of food safety. Additionally, most producers of raw dairy have some sort of ideological motive, which naturally lends to ethical, and thus hygienic, practices. But having actual food safety might not always mean a dairy has what it takes to meet all legal standards, and those are what the IDFA and others seek to impose on the grassroots raw dairy market.
Given the state of the environment (amongst other things), it should be clear that local, small-scale, natural agriculture done by people with more than a financial motive is a good thing, and some reports indicate that the Food Safety Modernization Act actually helps such projects. One can only hope then that legislators will not submit to the monetary agendas of major dairies and take steps that cause the decline of raw milk. As always, it is desire (in this case for money) that is the real problem.