Raw Milk Safety vs. Rights: Striking a Balance

By David Gumpert

It is rare for raw milk opponents to engage in open debate on the subject of raw milk, but just such a debate occurred at Harvard Law School on February 16, 2012. Presenting arguments on the raw milk side were Sally Fallon Morell, President, the Weston A. Price Foundation, and David Gumpert, author of the Raw Milk Revolution. Speaking for the opponents were Fred Pritzker, a personal injury attorney for the Pritzker Olsen law firm, and Heidi Kassenborg of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s dairy division. To watch the debate, go to the homepage of westonaprice.org. For commentary on the debate, visit thecompletepatient.com.

I have entitled my presentation “Raw Milk Safety versus Rights: Striking a Balance.” The reason we’re here tonight is that things have gotten way out of balance. We are witnessing aggressive propaganda wars and government sanctioned legal assaults against raw milk producers and distributors, led by people like those on the other side of this table, targeting small farms and ordinary consumers. These people are using cries of “safety” and “protection” to deny us something as simple as milk. . . and in the process telling us we don’t have the right to decide what food we can put into our bodies. In my remarks tonight, I’ll attempt to answer three questions:

  • Why is raw milk consumption growing?
  • How safe is raw milk?
  • Do we have the right to access raw milk, and other foods of our choosing?

Our friends from Minnesota will discuss food safety only in terms of the risk of pathogens. But more and more people are afraid of the hormones, the antibiotics, the GMO feed, the soy feed, the new breed of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, the artificial sweeteners, and the various processing associated with so much of our food…and how all these might contribute to the exploding rates of auto-immune disorders, allergies, asthma, Crohn’s and other chronic disease. So they are seeking unprocessed and untreated foods and fresh unprocessed milk is a big part of that.

An Important Number

But how many people are actually drinking raw milk? No one seemed to be able to provide a credible number, until recently. Some raw milk advocates discovered that the CDC conducted an in-depth survey of thousands of people in ten states in 2007 about their diets. Lo and behold, the CDC found that 3 percent of those surveyed consume raw milk. That translates into nine million Americans. As you’ll see in a little while, this is a very important number.


Before I get into the data, I want to show some photos, because my guess is our opponents will show you some, or at least will tell you some scary stories of people who have been paralyzed, suffered kidney damage, or other lasting problems from raw milk. They’ll no doubt tell you about a recent outbreak in Pennsylvania in which seventy people became ill, though thankfully, none seriously that I am aware of. The reason I am showing you these photos is so you can appreciate that those same stories exist with every single food you can think of, any food you can buy in the supermarket. Bad cantaloupe late last year put the two men into the hospital for two months, and even when they came out, they still needed oxygen. One woman died from her illness, and the woman pictured on the lower right lost her husband, whose picture wasn’t available. In total, cantaloupe contaminated with listeria killed 32 people and sickened 113, some with lasting problems like the men at the top. Bad ground beef in a hamburger paralyzed a promising dancer, Stephanie Smith, pictured on the left. The little girl in the middle spent weeks on dialysis, and the two-year-old boy on the right died—both from contaminated raw spinach. I haven’t heard anyone suggest we ban hamburgers, spinach, or cantaloupe, or even limit their availability. But any number of common foods we take for granted can, and do, kill people. Eggs, peanut butter, luncheon meats, even pasteurized milk, which killed three here in Massachusetts a few years ago. Yet there hasn’t been a single death from raw milk since at least the 1980s. I went through this little exercise to demonstrate the kind of fear mongering our opponents do about raw milk. None of it, whether about cantaloupe, hamburgers, raw spinach or peanut butter proves anything about what’s happening in the big picture. For that, we need to look at the macro data.

A Look at the Data

When you look at the macro data, you find it’s not nearly as scary as you would expect. First, let’s look at the data on the number of reported illnesses from raw milk covering the last ten years. They were nearly all drawn from the CDC by one of Mr. Pritzker’s competitors, the Marler Clark law firm, which is hostile to raw milk. So they mined the CDC data for every possible illness attributable to raw milk. What you see here is that there are between 25 and 175 reported illnesses from raw milk each year. In 2008 there were 132, last year there were 50. What I did was take a typical recent year for both raw milk illnesses, and total foodborne illnesses as reported by the CDC. So we are comparing apples to apples. And here is what you get. Of more than 23,000 total foodborne illnesses reported by CDC in 2008, 132 were from raw milk and raw milk cheese. That works out to one half of one per cent of the total reported illnesses from raw milk. Now, remember back to that earlier number I quoted, about nine million raw milk drinkers, or three percent of Americans drinking raw milk. Yet raw milk is responsible for a much smaller proportion of the illnesses. What this macro data says is that raw milk is not a serious public health hazard by any stretch of the imagination. Now, do I want to see the number of illnesses from raw milk reduced? Absolutely. Do I think it can? Absolutely. We just had an outbreak of some sixty illnesses from campylobacter in raw milk in Pennsylvania. I spoke with the farmer yesterday who said he’s totally re-done his process for cleaning milk pipes, but also installed a high-tech laboratory so he can test for pathogens before shipping milk.

Individual Rights

Which leads me to my third question: Do we have the right to access the foods of our choosing? The FDA says absolutely not. You see what the FDA said in a federal court case currently being argued in U.S. District Court: “There is no absolute right to consume or feed children any particular kind of food.” Okay, let them spout off, you say. But FDA and the state agencies they highly influence are aggressively enforcing this edict around the country, even against people who have organized private groups—food clubs, herdshare arrangements— and entered into private contractual relationships with farmers to obtain milk. This is milk that isn’t available to the general public. For example, a small private food club in Los Angeles, Rawesome Food Club, was raided in June 2010. Detectives from the Los Angeles County District Attorney came in with their guns drawn.

The Colbert Report did a skit about the raid, had a lot of fun, turned “raw” around and made it “war.” But it’s pretty serious to three people who were associated with Rawesome. Last August, they were charged with felonies in connection with distributing raw milk, and are facing up to eight years in jail. One of those charged, Victoria Bloch, a chapter leader for the Weston A. Price Foundation, told me that when she was in jail, awaiting arraignment, the other women prisoners, who were in for dealing drugs or theft or prostitution wondered why she was there. When she told them, they said, “You’re in for what!?” And, she had the highest bail request of all of them, sixty thousand dollars. This kind of thing has been going on in other parts of the country.

Maybe Heidi will tell you something about Minnesota. There, they shut down a private food club like Rawesome, in Minneapolis; and they just filed misdemeanor charges against Alvin Schlangen, a farmer distributing raw milk privately, and he could go to jail for a year. Once again, no one has gotten sick.

So outrageous are these and other similar situations that people are resorting to civil disobedience. A new organization has sprung up, the Raw Milk Freedom Riders, who are openly violating the federal ban on interstate shipments of raw milk by bringing raw milk across state lines—from Pennsylvania into Maryland last Novemberchallenging the FDA to arrest them. So far, the FDA has avoided them, because the FDA would rather pick on individual farmers, who can’t fight back easily, than on organized consumers, who know their rights.

They also organized an event in Wisconsin to support a dairy farmer, Vernon Hershberger, who has been engaging in civil disobedience by continuing to supply 200 food club members with raw milk. He was arrested at the end of 2011 and charged with three misdemeanors. He is facing possibly 2 ½ years in jail. He is a father of nine children and so far, he is representing himself in court. To get out of jail, his bail term stipulated he discontinue supplying his members. When he got home, he thought about what he agreed to do and couldn’t live with himself. He realized his members depended on him and he would be denying them the nutritious wholesome food he had committed to providing. He went back to court. While in the prisoner holding room at the courthouse, he read a speech to the judge, which said in part: “If our farm stopped feeding its owners’ families, there will be literally hundreds of children who will suffer malnutrition and even starvation. Your honor, I would much rather spend the rest of my life behind bars or even die than to be found guilty of such a gross sin before the Almighty God.” I’d like to hear what the people on the other side of the table have to say about that aspect of this crisis, about their actions depriving people of food they depend on for good health.


Photo: Jonathan Abrams of the Harvard Law School introduces panelists for the raw milk debate. From left to right: Sally Fallon Morell, president, the Weston A. Price Foundation, David Gumpert, author of the Raw Milk Revolution, Fred Pritzker, Esq., attorney for Pritzker Olsen, and Heidi Kassenborg of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s dairy division.

Deaths from Foodborne Illness Since 1999

Cantaloupe: 32 (2011-2012)
Spinach: 5 (2006)
Luncheon Meat: 12 (Canada, 2008); 2 (2011)
Peanut butter: 9 (2009)
Eggs: 30 PER YEAR
Oysters: 15 PER YEAR
Pasteurized Milk: 3 (Massachusetts, 2007)
Raw Milk: NONE

David E. Gumpert is author of The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights (September, 2009, Chelsea Green Publishing Co.). He writes a popular blog, The Complete Patient (www.thecompletepatient.com), which over the last two years has aggressively covered the health and regulatory issues surrounding the availability and legality of raw milk, as well as the implementation of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).

David is also author or co-author of six books on various aspects of business, including the best-selling How to Really Create a Successful Business Plan. He also co-authored the book Inge: A Girl’s Journey Through Nazi Europe, the story of his family’s experiences during the Holocaust, which was selected as a finalist by the Independent Publisher Book Awards for 2005. Prior to his book-writing and entrepreneurship career, he spent nine years as a staff reporter with The Wall Street Journal and seven years as small business editor of the Harvard Business Review. He was also a senior editor of Inc. Magazine.

One thought on “Raw Milk Safety vs. Rights: Striking a Balance

  1. Good question. Prior to the late 1800s, there was no pasteurization of milk anywhere, people had been using raw milk for 1000s of years. If you ask the right questions, you will get much better answers. It is sad that so many just bought the official party line that pasteurization was safer without asking themselves questions like this.

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