Got raw milk?
By TARINI PARTI | 3/29/14 3:12 PM EDT
Although not a campaign slogan just yet, a bipartisan coalition of House members is pushing for the overturn of a decades-old ban on the interstate sale of raw milk. A controversial topic within the food industry, it has slowly evolved into a pet cause that’s bringing together some of the most anti-government libertarians and left-leaning liberals.
Loosening regulations on raw – or unpasteurized — milk, which the Food and Drug Administration believes poses too many health risks, has been gaining steam on the state level in recent times, with at least half of states now allowing the sale of raw milk directly to consumers and several more seeing raw milk-related bills being introduced in the previous two sessions.
Now, with the introduction of two new bills in Congress by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), proponents of legalizing raw milk are making strides on the national front, too. Massie’s first bill, the “Milk Freedom Act of 2014,” would overturn the interstate ban on raw milk, and his other bill, the “Interstate Milk Freedom Act of 2014,” would allow interstate shipment of raw milk only between two states where raw milk sales are already legal.
The swing in momentum can, in part, be attributed to a transformation of the argument that advocates are using. The debate used to be centered on the health and nutritional benefits of raw milk versus the safety of pasteurized milk, but the likes of Ron Paul — who mentioned the issue in several speeches during his 2012 presidential run and introduced similar bills when he was in Congress — have turned it into one about freedom of choice.
“It’s nice to see that people are now advocating for their right rather than science,” said Baylen Linnekin, executive director of Keep Food Legal, a group that describes itself as “the first nationwide membership organization devoted to food freedom—the right of every American to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat, and drink the foods of their own choosing.”
In a statement on his two bills, Massie, too, highlighted the right to choose argument. “Today, many people are paying more attention to the food they eat, what it contains, and how it is processed. Raw milk, which has been with us for thousands of years, is making a comeback among these discerning consumers,” he said. “Personal choices as basic as ‘what we feed our families’ should not be limited by the federal government.”
Massie’s bills already have nearly 20 co-sponsors, including Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Tom McClintock (R-Calif.).
It’s a strange alliance.
Pingree, in particular, doesn’t typically share the same views on food-related policy as Massie or other Republicans, having fought recently against food stamp cuts and the use of pesticides that are endangering the Monarch butterfly population. But, in 2011, she wrote FDA to express her concern over the agency’s diverting of precious resources to “prevent consumers from choosing the type of milk that they drink.”
“When Ron Paul introduced his bill, he had trouble even getting one sponsor,” said David Gumpert, author of The Raw Milk Revolution, a 2006 book that paints an unflattering view of the government crackdown on raw milk producers. “This is quite an about-face. It speaks to the huge political change that as many representatives would go on record in support of raw milk just a few years after Ron Paul did this. It’s pretty impressive.”
The two new bills follow Sen. Rand Paul’s proposed amendment to the farm bill that would have allowed the direct sale of raw milk across state lines. The Kentucky Republican also made the food freedom argument, but he was unsuccessful in gathering support for his amendment.
In the past, raw milk advocates have argued that the product is actually healthier than pasteurized milk, but the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have countered that claim by pointing to data that shows the number of foodborne illnesses that can be attributed to raw milk.
Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, the major national group advocating for raw milk, argues that the statistics paint a misleading picture. He says there are several other products that aren’t banned that contribute to diseases, such as cigarettes, alcohol and even pasteurized milk in some cases.
“The trouble is that raw milk is the only food that is held to a standard of perfection,” he said.
Kennedy’s group, the advocacy arm of The Weston A. Price Foundation, more than doubled its fundraising — a measure of the growing interest in raw milk — between 2009 and 2011, according to the group’s tax filings. It raised about $240,000 in 2009 and nearly $530,000 in 2011.
Another factor now driving the movement is consumers’ growing disdain for Big Ag, said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney and food safety advocate who has represented several clients made sick by raw milk.
“There has certainly been a more vocal movement to consume raw milk as people have turned away from mass produced agriculture,” he said.
“The reasons why (clients) were consuming raw milk was because they believed it was healthier, and they were supporting small farmers and poking a stick in the eye of Big Ag.”
Despite the growing grassroots movement in favor of loosening raw milk regulation and bipartisan support, getting a bill through Congress will continue to be an uphill battle, especially with strong opposition from the dairy industry. The National Milk Producers Federation and International Dairy Foods Association — usually on opposite sides of dairy policy — have repeatedly compared consuming raw milk to “playing Russian roulette.”
Chris Galen, spokesman for NMPF, said his group will be educating members of Congress on the risks associated with raw milk to deter Massie’s bills from gaining traction. NMPF joined with state dairy associations in Wisconsin earlier this year to keep a raw milk bill from advancing in the state legislature and push Gov. Scott Walker to veto the legislation.
Kimberly Hartke, a spokeswoman for The Weston A. Price Foundation’s Campaign for Real Milk, acknowledges that any changes on raw milk regulation on the federal level might be tough to achieve, but she remains confident her side will prevail.
“It’s basically just the grassroots’ hard work, energy and enthusiasm that’s making the difference,” Hartke said. “And ultimately that will win the day.”