As soon as I started my 10-mile diet I became a criminal. No, not local marijuana (which now is legal in Washington). Local milk. Selling milk to your neighbor from your cow or goat is against the law.
I’m thinking about it today because the FDA just announced new food safety standards, saying we should prevent contamination rather than just react to outbreaks. This means further regulations, many so costly that small producers can’t reasonably comply. I’m all for the nation’s food supply being safe – but this ruling raises a concern. Hear me out. And tell me if I am off base. Please!
Raw milk – good for you, bad for you?
Raw milk is regulated by states, and the battle to legalize the sale of it has many fronts. Most advocates believe raw milk is better for your health because beneficial enzymes are destroyed with pasteurization. Most detractors say the milk, if not properly handled, can make you very sick and should not be sold right from the cow or goat. Pasteurization kills off the pathogens and protects the milk supply for the nation.
After much research – inconclusive since each side is adamant about their arguments – I stand somewhere else. It’s about sovereignty, subsidiarity and small farmer prosperity.
I believe that “neighbor to neighbor” trade of food should be exempt from the stringent – and costly – licensing and regulations that keeps the big guys in line, while still holding the little guys accountable to their customers for the quality of their product.
Organic in fact but not in label?
Most of my local farmers grow organically but they don’t sell their food as organic because they can’t afford to pay the fees for licenses and for inspectors to come out at required intervals. They are already at a disadvantage financially. Small scale hand raised food is inherently more expensive than large scale, highly subsidized, mechanized or undocumented workers harvested, factory processed food. Most of my local farmers have excellent procedures for harvesting, washing and packaging their food. First, they care. Second, their reputation is shot if even one person gets sick. This is performance based evaluation (people don’t get sick, the food is healthy and fresh) versus regulation based assurances (the inspector was on site to verify compliance). Third it behooves all of us to have thriving small scale agriculture in our regions.
I’m not objecting to food that travels more than 50-100 miles (a decent measure for accountability) from farm to fork being regulated to assure safety. Milk, for example, leaves regulated farms in large tankers and is combined at the bottling plant – we have NO way to know whose cow our milk comes from. Absolutely!
Why I trust my neighbor as much as the FDA
But my neighbor who sold me their one cow’s milk is a different story. I as a consumer want to legally buy that milk because:
- I trust this neighbor
- I really like the milk – way more delicious than the store milk
- I want this neighbor – and all my neighbors – to be able to earn money legally from what they produce at this small scale, enough to pay taxes and buy clothes and buy what they can’t produce. This is how we lived just a few generations ago!
Mechanisms for assurance
Because of this, I am willing to sign a consent form assuming personal responsibility for my choice. Alcohol kills yet it’s legal. Cigarettes kill yet they are legal. Couldn’t we require warning labels on local milk and/or require customers to sign a waiver? If you work out at a gym you sign a waiver; you hold yourself, not the gym, responsible for your sprains and bruises. You are taking your health into your own hands. Why not something similar with milk you buy from a neighbor’s cow? Or perhaps you need to prove that the buyer is a neighbor. You take their address. Or perhaps you have to prove that they are a personal friend. You get an existing customer to cosign for them. All this is in the realm of reasonable when you are dealing with people in community.
Why it’s important
Why do we need to bring this kind of trade above ground? Because more producers and consumers can benefit. It builds the local food capacity. Why is this important? Here are reasons that make sense to me:
- If we don’t want to participate in the food industrial complex, we can opt out without opting out of foods we love
- Industrial food is not inherently safer! According the FDA’s own press release “The burden of foodborne illness in the United States is substantial. One in six Americans suffer from a foodborne illness every year. Of those, nearly 130,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from their illness. Preventing foodborne illnesses will improve public health, reduce medical costs, and avoid the costly disruptions of the food system caused by illness outbreaks and large-scale recalls.” One in six!
- If you believe that raw milk is better for you and your children, you can purchase it. Most countries do not ban the sale of raw milk.
- If you believe that regional food security is important, you allow more very small scale producers to enter the market. If they scale up beyond several cows or a dozen goats, their customers will likely not be their friends and neighbors and so stricter regulations would kick in.
- If you don’t want your beautiful rural community overtaken by mono crops and mega corps and big box shopping plazas, then small scale producers have to have a shot at making a decent living. Growing peppermint is one things. Drying it and selling tea sachets is another. The value of the peppermint goes up astronomically. Raising, slaughtering and butchering animals for home consumption is one thing. Being able to sell roasts and chops to your neighbors without a USDA inspector watching (at your expense) makes those animals a small income stream as well as dinner.
Subsidiarity is a principle that says that problems are best solved closest to those affected. We need the UN to debate global issues like climate change and rights of women. We need national governments to preserve the rights for all citizens – and regulate our food and drug supply – and review rulings for constitutionality – and level the economic playing field, busting up monopolies, enabling entrepreneurs, using taxes to encourage beneficial action and constrain greed . We need state governments to innovate, regulate and respond to regional needs. But on the matter of neighbor to neighbor trade, we need local adaptations. There can be community review boards. There can be covenants and ordinances to provide some protections. But we can assume that people have common sense and allow them to make their own considered decisions about buying milk, eggs, cheese, meat, vegetables and herbs. Most of that is already legal without draconian costs to the producers.
How does this strike you? Why do you believe as you do? Where are you willing to risk for personal freedom and where do you believe it’s right to regulate?
All this from the desire for a spot of milk in my tea in the morning. But such is the unfolding of wisdom, starting from a small seed or irritant, and growing into mighty issues and insights.
January 9, 2013 at 9:06 PM
I was a boy on a dairy farm in Indiana in the early 1950’s. We consumed raw milk from our own cows and we were very careful how it was handled. We suffered no harm. My mother also made cheese and butter from said milk. There was, however, a very great fear then that one could contract tuberculosis from raw milk, and that disease was very hard to cure and many died from it. There were undoubtedly other diseases present.
Very soon, my parents bought a small (one gallon or less, I recall) electric milk pasteurizer. It heated the milk to some high temperature, short of boiling, and held it there for a prescribed time. I am thinking that local milk, carefully handled and so pasteurized without the use of chemicals or mixing, as you mention, with other milks would be safest for the neighbor-to-neighbor trade.
Our cows were miked with vacuum-driven milking machines into closed stainless steel containers and the milk of each cow weighed and then poured through a strainer into common 5-gallon stainless steel cans. Those cans (3-4 in number) were taken to the ‘milk house’ where the milk was poured into the top vat of a ‘separator’ driven by a hand crank (later an electric motor) to separate off the cream. The ‘skim milk’ was poured into other stainless steel cans and immersed into a cold water bath for cooling. It would be picked up the net day and taken to a local ‘dairy’ where it was bottled or made into milk products for sale in the town.
Periodically, small samples of milk were taken from each cow to measure the ‘butter fat’ content of the milk. Cows were valued by their butter fat content. Even bulls were valued by the butter fat content of their offspring cows.
My grandfathers both kept a few cows for milk to feed the family with the excess going to the pigs. They milked by hand into open buckets and often stray flecks of manure would wind up in those open buckets. That milk was also strained and then into the house where it was cooled (in a cold water bath) and the cream skimmed off. People did often contract tuberculosis in those days.
January 9, 2013 at 9:20 PM
Thank you for this thoughtful reply. Clearly your family took great care with your milk and it sounds like there were no cases of TB. I understand how important it is to assure the foods we eat are not contaminated. In the industrial food era, we do that by tightening regulations. Good, but… is there a way to do this while not so burdening small scale local producers that they either go out of business or underground. How do we tempter the consolidation of the food industry into the hands of the giant chemical and retail corporations, allowing small scale regional producers to flourish.
January 9, 2013 at 9:40 PM
I very much agree with you, Vicki, about our support of local farmers. That is why I have volunteered to serve on an advisory group to our local (Snohomish County) health department food security effort. I want to see an overall review of regulations affecting local food production and distribution and relax over regulation where reasonable. Food laws are preventing a lot of local good that could be done. In my county, for example, it is against rules to have a potluck open to the public. Hence, one cannot advertise a potluck. One can advertise that refreshments (to include cream pies that have sat out all day).
Personally, I prefer to grow as much of my own food as I can. We dry, can, freeze and just keep the garden going all year. We’re looking forward to our farm renters goats coming fresh in the spring.
January 10, 2013 at 6:51 AM
We had next-door cousins who milked when I was a kid. I think we drank their milk, but I’m not certain. At the end of your article, I thought your implied suggestion of assumed responsibility and the care of the local growers was a much more reasonable combined solution than the FDA-big-brotherism, and figured you had it right. Then I read Dean’s reply, and wondered if perhaps there might not be a more sensible middle ground. Clearly, like all things human, it is complex. Maybe at its root is a bigger question: “Isn’t cows milk for baby cows?” That said, I love a big bowl of Cheerios, and coffee without milk, for me, is not worth drinking. Interesting question and one that needs further consideration. I personally regret that our litigious society has made my lawnmower difficult to start with only one pair of hands. I dislike being constantly protected from bogeymen that lie in wait for idiots. But this is a more subtle conundrum. Thanks for bringing it to our “screens”. Thoughtful, as always Vicki.