As you're probably aware of by now, there's a war being waged against raw milk. While raw milk sales or distribution are legal in many US states, and progress has been made toward improving access, there’s strong opposition to this trend. Each victory is hard-won.
Our federal health agencies claim to be protecting us from this 'dangerous' product. As you walk down the aisles of junk food at your local grocery store, pass by the liquor section, and watch individuals buying cartons of cigarettes - you have to wonder is this really about our personal safety or the safety of the milk industry.
(A herdshare is a private agreement between a farmer and an individual in which the farmer is paid to take care of an animal, cow for example, that belongs to one or more people. You essentially pay a onetime purchase fee to “buy a share” of a farmer’s herd, which entitles you to the benefits of owning that cow, such as a certain amount of milk each week.)
On May 20, the trial of Wisconsin dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger began at the Sauk County Courthouse. Hershberger is charged with four criminal misdemeanors that could result in a jail sentence of up to 30 months, along with fines totaling more than $10,000.
As previously reported, Hershberger’s farm was targeted by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) for supplying a private buying club with raw milk and other fresh produce.
It’s important to realize that there’s much more at stake than what meets the eye here. As stated in the featured article by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund2:
“DATCP has charged Hershberger with, among other things, operating a retail food establishment without a license. Hershberger repeatedly rejects this, citing that he provides foods only to paid members in a private buying club and is not subject to state food regulations.
“There is more at stake here than just a farmer and his few customers,” says Hershberger, “this is about the fundamental right of farmers and consumers to engage in peaceful, private, mutually consenting agreements for food, without additional oversight.
... “Hershberger, and other farmers around the country, are facing state or federal charges against them for providing fresh foods to wanting individuals. In recent months the FDA has conducted several long undercover sting operations and raids against peaceful farmers and buying clubs that have resulted in farms shutting down and consumers without access to the food they depend on.”
Each day, following the day’s hearings, which began on May 20 and is expected to go on for about a month, supporters are scheduled to gather at the Al Ringling Theater across the street from the Sauk County Courthouse where leaders in the food rights movement will hold live presentations and lectures.
Scheduled speakers include Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, Mountain Man show star Eustace Conway, and food rights organizer from Maine, Deborah Evans.
One of the most common excuses given for why farmers are raided, prosecuted, and shut down is that raw foods may be potentially harmful to human health. But to think that pasteurized milk is safer than raw milk from a healthy, grass-fed cow is simply not true.
And for those of you who have been lucky enough to try this illegal product as raw dairy milk, cheese, and yogurt - you know what an incredible difference there is in taste and texture. Tests have shown substantial nutritional benefits from raw milk as well, over the pasteurized and defatted products you typically find at your grocery store.
While the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that raw milk can carry disease-causing bacteria, what they completely overlook is the fact that these bacteria are the result of industrial farming practices that lead to diseased animals, which may then in turn produce contaminated milk. They make no distinction whatsoever between disease-riddled factory farmed milk and the milk from clean, healthy, grass-fed cows.
The former MUST be pasteurized in order to be safe for consumption. The latter does not. You definitely avoid drinking any raw milk from a conventionally-raised feed-lot cow! But drinking raw milk produced by grass-fed cows from clean, well-run farms, on the other hand, is actually far LESS dangerous than drinking pasteurized milk. In fact, not only does raw milk contain good bacteria that are essential for a healthy digestive system, raw milk also offers protection against disease-causing bacteria.
CDC data3 shows there are about 412 confirmed cases of people getting ill from pasteurized milk each year, while only about 116 illnesses a year are linked to raw milk. And research by Dr. Ted Beals4, MD, featured in the summer 2011 issue of Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, shows that you are about 35,000 times more likely to get sick from other foods than you are from raw milk!
The science is equally clear on the above points, but that’s not why farmers like Hershberger are getting slapped with criminal charges. The larger issue at stake is the issue of food freedom—the right to sell, buy, and consume fresh food that hasn’t been produced by some multinational conglomerate.
Farmers have been getting a raw deal for some time now, as the dairy industry wants to keep a majority of the profits in their pockets. The local farmer to consumer model is not very beneficial to the big corporations, as they have brought the farmers share of many of these products down to less than 7 cents to the dollar in the retail market. Manufacturers, distributors and retailers are taking the majority of the profits from the farmer's labor.
It’s really nothing more than Mafia strong arm tactics aimed at shutting down the competition. The reason why small-scale organic dairy farms are so threatening to the dairy industry is because they simply cannot produce safe raw milk in a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO). Cows raised under such conditions produce milk that must be pasteurized in order to be safe to drink, as the unnatural diet and environment dramatically alters the nutritional and bacterial composition of the milk.
Meanwhile, real criminal activities that place you and your family’s health at grave risk are being ignored, if not outright condoned, by the same agencies that are trying to jail small-scale farmers like Hershberger. For example, no less than 19 drug companies made AllBusiness.com's Top 100 Corporate Criminals List for the 1990s. Their crimes included defrauding Medicare, Medicaid, and even the FDA; international price-setting; false claims; hiding serious problems with their drugs and, in one case (Ortho, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson), obstruction of justice and eight counts of persuading employees to destroy documents in a federal investigation.
Yet not a single person from any of those companies has seen the inside of a jail cell. Not even when Pfizer was ordered to pay $2.3 billion to resolve criminal and civil charges relating to the painkiller Bextra in 2009, or when GlaxoSmithKline was found guilty in the largest health fraud settlement in US history last year.
Why is it that a company, which is run by individuals, can harm and kill tens of thousands of people and get off paying fines that really amount to pocket change, while small farmers face serious jail time for selling healthful food to willing buyers? We simply must band together to support our local farmers against such injustice, and protect your own right to buy and eat whatever food you see fit for your family.
The fight over raw milk stands as a symbol of the much larger fight for food freedom. Who gets to decide what you eat? You? Or the FDA? If the FDA and state agencies are allowed to impose their view of “safe food” on consumers, raw milk won’t be the only thing lost—all food will be pasteurized, irradiated, and genetically engineered. The effort to reclaim our right to buy and consume raw milk is leading the way for everyone who wants to be able to obtain the food of their choice from the source of their choice. So please, get involved! I urge you to get involved with the following action plan to protect your right to choose your own foods:
If you're still unsure of where to find raw milk, you can locate a raw milk source near you at the Campaign for Real Milk Web site5. The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund6 (which helps farmers that have been raided and/or charged with a crime, like Hershberger) also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws7.
Getting your raw milk from a local organic farm is one of the best ways to ensure you're getting high quality milk. If you're thinking about purchasing milk from a small farmer, it would be very wise to visit the farm in person. Look around and ask questions, such as:
Additionally, look for the following general conditions. If a cow is covered in filth and manure, stinks, is wet and cold and doesn't look particularly comfortable, that could be a warning sign that her milk is less than ideal for raw consumption, even if it's from a small, local farm.
|Low pathogenic bacteria count (ie does the farmer test his milk regularly for pathogens?)||The milk comes from cows raised naturally, in accordance with the seasons||The cows are not given antibiotics and growth hormones to increase milk production|
|The milk is quickly chilled after milking||The cows are mainly grass-fed||Cows are well cared for|
Hershberger is just one of many farmers who has been unreasonably harassed and victimized in the war against raw food. There are many other examples. And every year there seems to be one bill or another aimed at taking away your rights to feed your family with whatever foods you see fit. For example, right now a new bill threatens to make herdshare illegal in North Dakota8.
This fight is about much more than just raw milk. It’s a fight for the most fundamental of rights—the right of farmers and consumers to engage in private, mutually consenting agreements for food, without additional oversight. We’re not dealing with drugs here. We’re dealing with FOOD!
Yet while Big Pharma can sell hazardous goods without major repercussions, farmers can’t sell healthful food without being harassed! This must end. One of the best ways you can support this movement is to support your local farmers by buying their food. You can also help make inroads by supporting the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund with a financial pledge.
Related article: 20 Places to Find Local Food and Family Farms Near You