Despite a recent crackdown, Washington State’s raw-milk policy might point way forward.
In a nation riddled with diet-related maladies like obesity and diabetes, the official fear that greets raw milk is impressive.
You can waltz into any convenience store and snap up foods pumped liberally with government-subsidized high-fructose corn sweetener, deep-fried in government-subsidized partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Yet in many states, teams of bureaucrats devote themselves to “protecting” us from raw milk — and imposing onerous fines on farmers who dare sell it.
Some states ban raw milk outright; others have erected elaborate barriers between farmer and consumer. Here in North Carolina, for example, I have to pretend I’m buying animal fodder when I visit a nearby dairy farm to pick up a gallon or two of raw milk.
Even so, consumers are increasingly demanding it, banding together with farmers to form Prohibition-like cells from New York City to Portland. To me, it tastes better, more alive, than even the best pasteurized milk; and I tend to believe the health claims made for it.
According to this AP article, Washington State is stepping up enforcement of its raw-milk restrictions, which are actually relatively enlightened. The article says that in Washington, farms that sell raw milk must be “licensed through the state, which requires monthly testing of the milk and inspection of the farm and milk bottling room.” Further, “each bottle must contain a warning label saying it may contain harmful bacteria.”
However, a law that went into effect July 1 allows the milk to be hand-bottled. That means farms don’t have to lay out large investments in bottling equipment — a requirement that would eliminate milk sales as a potential revenue source for many small operations.
As long as compliance costs are low, Washington’s raw-milk code could actually help build the market for the product. While I think that consumers are their own best health inspectors — I wouldn’t buy raw milk from a farm I hadn’t inspected myself, or whose operator didn’t have a top-notch reputation in his or her community — many people don’t feel comfortable consuming something as potentially dangerous as raw milk without government oversight.
(There is of course a bitter irony here: The government has long shown itself to be more responsive to corporate dictates than public-health concerns. To cite just one example: The FDA continues to countenance the use of hydrogenated oil, despite decades of evidence of its deadly effects.)
Direct-marketed raw milk is a potential boon to dairy farms that have languished for years under the heel of rising costs and stagnant prices for their goods. Consolidation in the dairy-processing industry means that in most places, a single buyer exists for a farm’s milk output. By selling direct to consumers, farmers have more leverage to get a decent price.
Produced in small quantities by rigorous farmers, raw milk’s much-feared health dangers seem way overblown.