I would like to make a correction regarding my previous column. References to the Food and Drug Administration should have been to the Environmental Protection Agency. That said in this missive I will be writing about the FDA.
I was glad to see a story published in the Spirit several weeks back about the small Sinnema family farm in Island Crossing, Wash., where their family dairy farm had been, pardon the expression, put to pasture.
In the late 1990s, the price of milk did not make it economically feasible to operate so the family sold their herd of dairy cows. However, recently the Sinnemas have started up production again, but this time they are producing raw milk, and because it is a specialty product, it commands a premium price. This makes their relaunch economically feasible.
This is a classic example of how markets should work, barring interference from government. A small startup company, in this case a small farm, sees an opportunity in an underserved or niche market and steps in to address it. Niche markets sometimes offer an opportunity for a competitive advantage for the small operator over the big guys.
Oddly enough, raw milk has become a controversial issue. There are a number of advocacy groups that I would group loosely under food freedom movement that have rallied around it.
Some consider raw milk to be unsafe. However, in looking into the matter I have discovered that illness from pathogens occurs in both raw and pasteurized milk. In fact, the largest outbreak of salmonella in the U.S. came from pasteurized milk. Meat and poultry as well as bagged vegetables also have a higher incidence. Go figure.
On the other side of the argument, advocates for raw milk say that it is better for you because the high temperatures used in pasteurizing milk destroy important nutrients. They also say that small boutique farms are better able to produce raw milk safely than large factory farms. It’s the factory farms that need to pasteurize their milk so they don’t make their customers sick. If they have to do it, they want to make sure that the regulator forces the little guy to do it too so as not to gain a competitive advantage. With their size, they can then eventually price the little guy out of business.
To my mind, as long as a product is properly labeled, it’s up to the consumer. I certainly don’t want a regulator telling me what I can or cannot eat. The FDA doesn’t see it that way. In fact, the FDA has conducted several armed raids on small dairy farms that produce raw milk, including Rainbow Acres Farm in Pennsylvania.
The latter was owned by David Allgyer, an Amish small farmer in Lancaster County. He sold his wares to a group of consumers in suburban Washington D.C. that bought shares, as is the practice in Community Supported Agriculture clubs or CSAs. The FDA came after Allgyer with an armed SWAT team because he sold his raw milk products across state lines. He is now out of business.
The militarization of a regulatory agency is a disturbing development. Who needs due process when you have an armed SWAT team? By the way, none of Allgyer’s products were found to be contaminated; he had an impeccable safety record. The FDA official responsible for the raid was Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Michael R. Taylor. Prior to being appointed to the FDA by President Obama, Taylor was a vice president for Monsanto.
In matters of regulation, state governments are waking up to the fact that they need to take the lead and to stop federal overreach. Raw milk, or more generally food freedom, has become a rallying point. Washington state, where the Sinnemas have restarted their dairy farm, is one of 10 states that allow retail sales of raw milk. Most states allow or do not prohibit farm or CSA sales of raw milk. There are 10 states, including West Virginia, that prohibit the sale of raw milk under any circumstances.
A bill — HB 2627 — that has been introduced in the West Virginia Legislature contains an amendment proposed by Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, that would allow unpasteurized milk to be sold in our state as long as it was conspicuously labeled as “Unpasteurized Raw WV Milk.” It sounds reasonable to me. If you agree, talk to your legislator about it.
— Elliot Simon writes from Harpers Ferry