“If people let the government decide what foods they eat… their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.”
— Thomas Jefferson
What is the legitimate role of public health authorities in protecting us, and when does it cross the line into controlling us?
It has crossed the line with dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger, who provides milk to his and at least 100 other families. He is set to be tried before a jury early this year for the crime of selling natural (raw) milk from his Loganville farm.
Hershberger is not peddling his product to an unsuspecting public on street corners in downtown Baraboo or trying to place it on store shelves. He is merely responding to market pressure from informed individuals who prefer natural to pasteurized milk because they consider it tasty and healthy, provided cows are kept clean and well. The fact that Hershberger’s 10 children drink his milk is reason enough for them to drink it.
They are beating down his barn door for the sweet, white frothy bovine brew that many a Wisconsin farm kid grew up on without incident of illness and that was delivered until about 1950, unpasteurized, by many Wisconsin milk men.
And, indeed, statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show risk of illness from raw milk is small. We are 35,000 times more likely to get sick from foods other than raw milk, with contaminated produce leading. In 50 years no one has died from drinking raw milk, and of the 48 million people who in 2010 had even minor food-borne illness, only 50 cases involved raw milk.
Why, then, is the federal Food and Drug Administration and its counterparts, the state departments of agriculture, spending so much time and tax money suppressing limited raw milk sales to the 3 percent of the population that, knowing the small risks, want it? They say they protect public health. But a closer look shows they protect the economic interests of corporate dairies, a powerful lobby in this state.
The Wisconsin Farm Bureau is an advocate of corporate farming. Two years ago I spoke with Jeff Lyons — now second in command at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection — while he was assigned to the raw milk issue at the Bureau. I asked him if the Bureau represented the interests of big and small farmers. He replied that small family farms need to become corporate farms, as that is the only realistic kind of farming today.
I could tell he considered me silly for saying I missed seeing cows grazing on Wisconsin grass. But it is practical to prefer milk from truly contented cows that graze on grass because it nourishes them and, in turn, us. I do not apologize for using animal products and even eating them, but I believe they are owed, in return, a natural, decent life.
They do not get it in a corporate dairy. There they live out three to five years of their 15-year natural life span in small spaces in huge barns, where they are given feed for which their digestive systems are not designed. There they are pumped full of hormones to make them over-produce milk and antibiotics to counteract the sickness that visits them in their confined pens. What we put in the cow goes into the milk that goes into us.
Then, when we pasteurize it, we kill most of the pro-biotics (good bacteria) that promote health (and control bad bacteria), as well as vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Most nutrients on store milk labels are synthetic additives.
No wonder raw milk demand is growing, along with suppression of it.
The Hershberger trial is bigger than Hershberger. It’s about how free we really are in a free society to do our own thing as long as it doesn’t harm our neighbor. From the other side, it’s about how much market share can be grabbed and how much food choice can be controlled under pretext of protecting public health.
Bureaucrats in regulatory agencies like DATCP make rules — without public input — that are treated like laws. Violation of these rules is not the big crime they would have us think it is. And we should exercise our freedom to overturn such regulations and refuse to enforce them even if the facts show that they have been violated.
A factor in the 1933 repeal of prohibition was the refusal of people to convict neighbors for selling or consuming alcohol. The bad law of prohibition eroded respect for the law generally.
It is an equally bad law that bans sale of raw milk after decades in which an earlier DATCP administration permitted it on a limited basis.
To defend their bad law, DATCP, under auspices of the Department of Justice, is ready to put a good man and the father of 10 children in jail.
Margo Redmond is a volunteer spokesperson for the Wisconsin Raw Milk Association and operates her own business, Write-for-Results, teaching professional writing. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.