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Got (raw) milk?
Raw milk advocates have a point about government rules

Date published: 5/24/2011

AMERICA, sleep well. After a year of surveillance, an undercover operation, and a pre-dawn raid by gun-toting U.S. marshals, the country is safe from an Amish farmer. Dan Allgyer's crime? Selling unpasteurized milk to a food co-op in the Washington area.

But raw-milk advocates, the feds are learning, do not go down easily. About 400 people protesting Mr. Allgyer's arrest arrived on Capitol Hill earlier this month with a cow named Morgan, a milking stool, plastic cups, and plenty of passion. Toasting their favorite drink, they pointed out that the signers of the Constitution also drank raw milk and proclaimed "the right to choose what to eat and drink" without government interference.

The demonstrators, many mothers with children in tow, are part of a growing army of Americans who are taking on the food establishment, including the FDA, the USDA, and agribusiness. That their protest took place within squirting distance of the halls of Congress, where agricultural subsidies are political largesse worth about $20 billion per year, is significant.

The subsidies began as means of "price stabilization" for family farms during the Great Depression, but today 10 percent of farms collect 74 percent of the federal money, with corn (ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup, livestock feed) leading the way. Indeed, agribusiness and government are often bedfellows, and regulations reflect their love affair. Meanwhile, guess who is shut out of the room? Health-conscious consumers whose ideas about eating trend toward natural, not mass-produced, foods, and whose experience runs contrary to FDA doctrine.

On raw milk, for example: The FDA outlawed the interstate sale of the product in 1987. (Virginia also bans its sale within the state.) Its position is that there is no nutritional benefit to raw milk over pasteurized, and that raw milk can harbor "pathogens"--i.e., organisms that can make people sick.

It's true, any raw food can harbor pathogens. Raw spinach, tomatoes, chicken, and hamburger have all been the sources of E. coli outbreaks in recent years, yet the FDA has not banned those products. On the other hand, pasteurization kills the friendly bacteria and enzymes in raw milk, which, advocates say, boost the immune system and which are critical to digestion. (A European study reported that raw milk can actually help prevent allergies and asthma.)

So why did the FDA ban interstate sales of raw milk? Could it be lobbying from the International Dairy Foods Association and National Milk Producers Federation, both of which have asked Congress to crack down on raw-milk producers?

Agribusiness has made American food the cheapest in the world. But, increasingly, whole-food advocates are questioning corporate practices that may push profits over health. Refined grains and high-fructose corn syrup are cases in point. Could the rise in cases of autism, food allergies, and asthma have anything to do with mass-produced foods?

Some people think so. They should have the right to pursue alternatives for their families without government interference. As one raw-milk advocate says, "Where a warning would suffice, a ban is inappropriate." So free Dan Allgyer--and free consumers.