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Imperialists in the Refrigerator

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Various American regulatory agencies have criminalized the sale and the distribution of raw milk, allegedly as a means of protecting the welfare of consumers. The government claims unpasteurized milk is dangerous because it has not been treated to eliminate pathogens such as E. coli.

Raw-milk enthusiasts counter by pointing to its health benefits and the fact that it has been safely consumed by humans for centuries. This is the wrong ground of argument. It assumes the government can properly ban a food if, in its judgment, the food carries an unacceptable health risk for your body.

The ban does not require your agreement; indeed, producers and consumers who refuse to negate their own judgment are severely and publicly punished in order to deter others who might rebelliously eat food. Nor does the risk need to be a direct or deadly contamination; some studies or some experts may merely point to increased indicators for possible illness in the future.

Once you cede the “authority” of the state to dictate food choices to individuals, then the entire argument against such bans has been conceded. No solid moral or political defenses remain. Nothing is left but the crunching of data to uncover health risks. And remember, state-funded statistics and studies will almost always lead to greater state control.

Political importance of raw milk

On the surface, raw milk may seem to be a strange focal point for political turmoil, but the issue is a perfect political storm that combines key social conflicts. It embodies the political war on food — also expressed in the building obsession with obesity and school lunches. Raw milk represents individuals taking control of their own health at a time when health care is being nationalized. And because preventing illness in children is a common justification for raw-milk prohibition, this conflict also raises the issue of parental versus governmental control of children. Raw milk is a line drawn in the sand by consumer advocates against the disappearance of choice from even trivial aspects of life. Moreover, the crackdown continues the war on family farms that has been accelerating since 2009 — Obama’s first year in office.

In short, the issue of raw milk confronts the nanny state with both the demand for personal choice and the accusation that it is acting as an enforcement arm for big business — specifically, the corporate agriculture of big dairy, which is notorious for its monopolistic practices.

The nanny state has responded to the threat of raw milk with FDA SWAT-style raids on milk farms and also with the confiscation of raw milk from the homes of customers. WorldNetDaily (May 21) reports,

The founder of the Organic Pastures business in California is reporting that government health officials have begun tracking down the names and addresses of natural-foods customers and showing up at their homes, demanding to confiscate any raw milk they might have.

The repression reveals the nanny state’s true goal, which is neither humanitarianism nor safety but social control down to the type of milk you can keep in your kitchen.

Tearing the mask off the nanny state

In its punishment of those who rebelliously produce and eat unsanctioned food, the ugly face of the nanny state appears.

The Minnesota farmer Alvin Schlangen is a case in point. Schlangen runs a private food-distribution club named Freedom Farms Co-op, which serves about 130 people in the Twin Cities area. Raw milk is among the food products he delivers. And yet, distributing raw milk is illegal in his state. Minnesota Statute 32.393 reads,

No milk, fluid milk products … shall be sold, advertised, offered or exposed for sale … for the purpose of human consumption in fluid form in this state unless the same has been pasteurized and cooled … this section shall not apply to milk … occasionally secured or purchased for personal use by any consumer at the farm where the milk is produced.

In an article entitled “Raw Milk, and Raw Emotion, Go to Court,” the Star Tribune (May 21) reported,

Schlangen called the law “absurd,” since it implies the same batch of raw milk is safe at the farm, but not if sold in the Twin Cities. He said he didn’t break the law, either. “The charges are based on commerce and there’s no commerce here. It’s a completely different food system than what we are accustomed to.”

One difference in Schlangen’s food system is that customers lease cows from Amish farmers in order to avoid violating the Minnesota statute. Since the customers “own” the cows, Schlangen does not sell raw milk but merely delivers it to its rightful owners in a legal manner.

Again, the state of Minnesota disagrees; so does the FDA, which has raided his farm. Schlangen is scheduled to go on trial in Hennepin County in July, on four misdemeanor charges related to the sale of raw milk. Each count could result in 90 days imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. He faces similar charges in a second county.

Schlangen’s prosecution has been widely justified by an incident that occurred in the spring of 2010. Fellow Minnesotan Matthew Caldwell gave his son raw milk that had been produced by dairy farmer Mike Hartmann. The boy came down with a severe case of E. coli. In all, eight cases of the infection were linked to Hartmann, who denied the accusations, saying that no evidence of E. coli had been found in his products. The state countered that the specific strain responsible for the outbreak had been found in manure on Hartmann’s farm.

Prosecution ensued, and the judge ruled in the state’s favor. The successful prosecution of Hartmann is widely seen as a turning point in the battle between Minnesota and raw-milk producers, which has gone on for years.

First case of child abuse for serving raw milk?

An ominous new door may be opening in the battle between government and raw-milk sellers. After his son was hospitalized, Caldwell sued Hartmann for medical expenses. (Lawsuits are always lamentable, but they do point toward a free-market solution to contaminated food.)

The presiding judge ruled on the case this month. The Star Tribune reported,

Hennepin County District Judge Susan Burke has ruled that Hartmann was negligent, but she also accepted his argument that Owen Caldwell’s parents potentially bore some responsibility because they should have known of raw milk’s risks.

The Caldwells’ attorney rejected Hartmann’s assertion, and noted the “irony” of the farmer’s new tack-“after spending much time championing the benefits of raw milk and its safety.” A jury likely will decide the proportion of fault between Hartmann and the Caldwells.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).