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Raw Milk Bans are About Protecting Big Industry

In Massachusetts, a controversy over raw milk regulations has cast doubt on our seemingly basic right to unprocessed food. Government, public health and dairy industry officials want to restrict the sale and distribution of raw (unpasteurized) milk, citing grave safety concerns. But small dairy farmers, organic consumers' advocates and raw milk drinkers say the issue isn't safety-it's control of the dairy market.

In January, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) proposed new regulations that would ban off-the-farm sale and distribution of raw milk. Prior to making the revamped regulations public, MDAR issued cease-and-desist orders to four milk-buying clubs that buy raw milk directly from small farmers and distribute it among members. MDAR Commissioner Scott Soares insists the clubs' activities are illegal and that the new rules are "intended to be a clarification over what has always been the case."

Soares says MDAR began revising raw milk protocol in an "effort to align regulations with those outlined by the Food and Drug Administration." And according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the bottom line here is safety. But Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, describes Soares as an "[a]nti-raw milk crusader." And David Gumpert, author of The Raw Milk Revolution, says that regulation is "not about safety-it's about protecting markets."

"Conventional dairy doesn't want raw milk tarnishing the image of pasteurized milk," says Gumpert, who notes that while no one has died in Massachusetts because of raw milk, three people died in 2007 from Listeriosis from pasteurized milk. He adds that the "the [Center for Disease Control] and FDA have blind spots around raw milk. They don't want to do research on it."

The CDC and FDA, along with several other organizations including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Veterinary Medicine Association, are unequivocally opposed to raw milk consumption, making it difficult for raw milk advocates to push for wider legalization. Nevertheless, 10 states allow raw milk retail sales.

Figures used by the CDC and others to demonstrate the dangers of raw milk consumption show it to be a blip on the screen of food-borne illness in the United States. The CDC reports that from 1993 to 2006, unpasteurized milk caused 69 incidents of human infections, with 1,505 reported illnesses, 185 hospitalizations and two deaths. That averages out to about 116 illnesses a year, or less than .000002 percent of the 76 million people who contract food-borne illnesses every year in the United States.