March 14, 2009

symbolic regulation

Let's talk about raw milk and regulation. I drink raw milk. I buy it at one of two retail outlets; there are three brands available in Philadelphia, one from each of three very small farms that raise three different heritage breeds of dairy cattle. It's totally delicious. I stopped having cereal with milk years ago because I felt like the milk had a weird aftertaste; raw milk doesn't have it. The Gardener also finds it much easier to digest than pasteurized milk. I also feel pretty good about the food safety of raw milk. In Pennsylvania, raw milk is licensed, inspected, and regularly tested for contamination; more importantly, the farmers treat their reputation like gold. One of them recently recalled its weeks' production because they found bacteria (listeria or campylobacter, I don't remember which) somewhere in the bottling facility. Not in the milk, and no one got sick, but they recalled it immediately. Their relationship with their retail outlets and customers is direct and traceable, and unlike the Peanut Corporation of America, if there is so much as a breath that one of those farms isn't careful, they'll lose customers. The retail outlets will stop ordering, and the customers will stop buying. They are certainly far more careful than basically any large-scale dairy, and the testing they do is more comprehensive.

All of which makes me really annoyed with most parties in the article linked above, which talks about an E. coli outbreak in Connecticut linked to raw milk, and the new regulations the state is planning: namely, raw milk will be restricted to on farm and farmers' market sales. Now. That's the law in most states, actually. And it's certainly sad that several children got quite sick, and may have long-term kidney damage. (Although, ok, one of those kids got E. coli from another kid, which means she was interacting with that other kid's poop, so it's hard for me to see raw milk as the primary health issue; and the other parent was all, "I didn't know raw milk could have any health problems ever," which made me a little irritated with how she totally missed the part in middle school science where everyone talks about Louis Pasteur and the germ theory of disease.) But requiring that sales be made directly by the farmer will do nothing whatsoever for public health, unless you believe that raw milk is intrinsically a health threat and reducing its consumption is in and of itself good for public health. It's symbolic: hey, it's sad that kids got sick! Let's do something! When a better option would be to think about whether Connecticut does have adequate testing and inspection. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that since PA makes you test twice a month, and CT doesn't seem to make you test even once a month, there's some room for actually useful changes in there.

(Apparently the state did consider such a bill, but since it required farmers to pay more, it got nowhere. Which makes me wonder: isn't there a compromise? Don't Connecticut's raw dairy farmers want to have evidence that their dairies are safe? Testing and permitting, done right, are really good for the credibility and safety of raw milk. They're apparently trying to raise funding for monthly testing via a non-profit, but having it be state-mandated really does improve credibility, because it helps prevent situations like this one in which a single farm's problem becomes an issue for every raw dairy in the state.)

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