Ever since financial constraints forced the sale of our dairy goat herd on August 5, 2017, I have been working to write a draft bill to end West Virginia’s lingering law prohibiting direct farm-to-consumer sales of unprocessed (raw) milk. This law is the most significant impediment to our financial success. I have discussed the language of my bill with both cow and goat dairy farmers from around the state and representatives of the West Virginia Raw Milk Board of Directors to solicit comments and make the bill work for the smallest dairy operators. I have discussed our effort publicly on local television and radio stations and before any group that would listen. I even met with State officials and legislators to discuss the bill and seek support. Now we have a real chance to make some important progress on this initiative. Unfortunately, it means that the political battle for its fate is about to begin. I apologize for the length of this post, but it is necessary to fully address all of the critical issues that we may face during the adoption process.
I received a welcome telephone call on Saturday, January 12 from Pendleton County House Delegate, Isaac Sponaugle, a prominent Franklin attorney. He called to tell me that he has submitted my draft bill for legal review prior to legislative action, after which he will introduce it for action during the 2019 Legislative Session. I also have the generous support of a prominent State Senator to back this bill. This is the big step we have worked for over the past 17 months, and we greatly appreciate Delegate Sponaugle’s courage and willingness to support its adoption. I call it courage, because the prior effort to reverse this prohibition was fought over a seven-year period and resulted in a compromise “Herd Share” bill that allows dairy farmers the options to “sell” a share of their herd to prospective customers in exchange for some of the milk they produce. While it does allow a veiled opportunity for raw milk to be sold, it is not an ideal solution that works for all small farm operations—especially for small dairy goat farms. My reasons for saying this have been discussed in prior posts on this website, most recently in my June 28, 2018 post entitled, “WHSV Tells Our Story.”
This means that the political struggle for its adoption will soon begin. I certainly can’t guarantee success, as history has shown it will be a hard and bitter fight. I’m afraid I am not a fan of twenty-first century politics as I have seen and experienced it. I have seen many recent political wars fought through intimidation, fear, and anger. The intense emotions these tactics raise are carefully courted and cultivated to make the public suspend careful, critical thinking and make snap decisions based largely on bold leaps of faith or their broader political allegiances. It may be the primary reason why politics today are so divided and politicians find it so difficult to sort out fact from fiction or to tackle the most controversial issues. While our access to data is much greater today than it was in the last century, our ability to comprehend what it all really means—rather than just what its proponents say it means—is not easy. I have always heard it said that statistics don’t lie, but they can be used to make lies. That is a universal, common sense truth. I would add a corollary to that statement. That those who seek to lie using statistics find it easier to do so by using intimidation, fear, and anger.
In order to make sound, objective decisions, we all must be responsible for applying critical thinking skills to challenge the information we are routinely fed. If we want the freedom to choose how we conduct our personal lives, we must assume the responsibility to understand why others are motivated to influence our choices, what the various consequences (both intended and unintended) of our choices will be, and what information we should use as a basis for our choices. This line of thinking is where the age-old saying, “caveat emptor” (buyer beware) comes from. If you don’t wish to assume those three basic responsibilities, you will either make bad decisions or you will abandon your freedom to choose what you will do in favor of what someone else says you should do. I don’t think I can explain it any simpler than that. I believe that my primary job during the adoption process is to encourage our legislators to think critically and objectively about what they will be told by both sides of the issue. I have no fear of that.
I believe that the final outcome of our bill will hinge on two primary sources of opposition. The first will come from large commercial dairy and dairy processor interests, backed by the Dairy Council and Farm Bureau. It seems strange that some dairy interests would be motivated to oppose a bill designed to relieve dairy farmers from excessively onerous regulations, but it is surprisingly easy to understand. Many commercial dairy interests initially fear that allowing sales of unprocessed raw milk to the public will unleash a wave of pathogen-borne illnesses that would tarnish the public image of milk. I will address that concern later in this post. To understand other commercial dairy concerns, you need to “follow the money” in the dairy sector.
Over the past 50 years, all dairy farmers have struggled to finance their operations. As direct farm-to-customer sales of milk, cheese, and butter were eliminated by the laws we seek to change, farmers became increasingly dependent on dairy processing plants to buy, pasteurize, and process their milk for sale. Their only alternative was to build their own milk processing facilities, which some large, wealthy operations did. In the latter half of the twentieth century, periodic milk gluts emerged during this regulatory market transition, making it increasingly difficult for small farms to earn a living wage from the milk they could produce. These family farms (like ours) were unable to buy additional land to support a larger herd or to afford to hire the additional outside labor needed to milk and feed them.
Many farmers tried to improve the milk production of their herds through selective breeding, bioengineering, adopting advanced milking and farming technologies, and switching to special feed and supplements specifically formulated to increase milk production. Of course, these strategies also added to the cost of production. Gradually over time, the smallest farmers were simply forced out of business because they couldn’t finance the cost. However, some farms grew into larger and larger operations, which made them more profitable because they could absorb the increasing operating costs through higher milk production. These farms expanded their operations by buying cows and land from the smaller failed farms and by redesigning their farms with new technologies and equipment that allowed them to keep more cows on less land. Over time, the milk produced by the growing mega-farms increased the competitive market pressures on the remaining small farms, resulting in a rapidly expanding and self-reinforcing trend towards bigger and bigger industrial-scale dairy farms.
According to a 2016 USDA Report, Changing Structure, Financial Risks and Government Policy for the U.S. Dairy Industry (Economic Research Report 205), which documents this dramatic trend, the median herd size of dairy farms nationally has increased from 80 cows in 1987 (two years after the whole herd buyout program was initiated) to 570 in 1997 and 900 in 2012. The largest single dairy farm documented in the report (located in Oregon) milks 32,000 cows on 39,000 acres. Small family farms clearly can’t compete with huge industrial-scale dairies, so they have disappeared over time in waves of failures driven by periodic milk gluts and the anemic market prices paid by the dairy processors. This transition became complete in our local area in December 2017 when the last family owned and operated commercial diary farm in the tri-county area of Grant, Hardy, and Pendleton was forced to sell its herd because the milk hauler refused to transport its milk to the processing plant. Since the rugged landscape of West Virginia is not capable of supporting giant, modern industrial-scale dairy operations, there is no economically viable way to revive the industry through new start-up small dairy operations. However, a few large commercial dairy farms remain in other parts of the state.
These are the dairy farmers who may not support our bill because they don’t want to encourage milk competition from smaller farms who do not have to absorb the production costs of the current rules. They may be joined by the Farm Bureau (of which they are important members) and the milk processors, who don’t want any competition for retail milk sales. Ironically, the threat they perceive is greatly exaggerated, and I can tell you why.
Our proposed bill places limitations on the daily amount of unprocessed milk or milk products that can be sold from a farm. These limits effectively prevent any raw milk producer from becoming a large operation, just as they would prevent any of the largest producers from fully converting to a raw milk operation. This ensures that only small, West Virginia-sized family raw milk dairy farms could be created, which best fit the landscape and available land resources of our Allegheny Highlands region. The sales volume is also limited because the emerging consumer market for unprocessed, raw milk is also constrained. It is driven by a small, but growing number of people who desire unprocessed foods because they want to buy natural and organically grown foods and have concerns about the potential health effects of genetic engineering and artificial additives on the quality of processed foods. Many of them are moving into West Virginia from surrounding cities and urbanized areas in search of a healthier rural lifestyle and alternatives to store-bought foods. Our local farmer’s market serves a number of these consumers. As a result, they are not actively seeking to buy milk from the large commercial dairy farms and milk processors. Furthermore, the large commercial farms, which are tailored to serve the processed milk market, cannot by law directly serve that highly specialized market.
I would suggest that this opposition is based on a false sense of competition because any small dairy operations created by our proposed bill would serve a different and separate milk market. Our proposed bill could only affect the processed milk market if they are denied the option to purchase the unprocessed milk they desire and subsequently forced to buy store-bought milk. Since raw milk can be sold in the way we propose in 31 other states (including the adjoining State of Pennsylvania) and the current Herd Shares bill allows some raw milk to be effectively sold within West Virginia, retaining the current regulatory advantage the biggest farms enjoy may only have the unintended effect of discouraging some people from moving to West Virginia. Our bill would not change the current Herd Shares law, it would only provide another option for the smallest diary operations to enjoy the same privileges conveyed by the Herd Shares program. The legitimate question this opposition raises is not what effect our bill would have on the state’s remaining dairies, but whether the state will effectively serve the specialized market choices of an emerging group of informed consumers. Which scenario do you feel would help expand and diversify the current agricultural economy in West Virginia?
The second, and perhaps strongest, source of opposition will come from public health officials and their supporters (which currently includes the Farm Bureau). This vocal, entrenched, and politically powerful group fears the public sale of raw milk because they perceive it to be an “elixir of death,” as explained in my July 28, 2018 post. The basic thrust of their opposition is that raw milk contains a number of bacteria and pathogens that can cause illness and death in humans, and that milk can only be made safe to consume through pasteurization. They will freely provide reems of health statistics to document the pathogens that can exist in milk and the illnesses and deaths those pathogens cause each year. They will even provide data specific to illnesses and deaths resulting from consumption of raw milk. From this body of statistics, they will implore everyone to conclude that raw milk is a deadly risk and permitting its sale to the public will unleash a Pandora’s box of pathogens, including the potential for deadly and drug-resistant superbugs, on an unsuspecting, vulnerable public. Of course, they will only arrive at these conclusions after they have bewildered the audience with an exhaustive techno-babble presentation that would challenge any layman’s attention span and fan the germophobic fears that are so prevalent in society today. I say this because I’ve heard it all a number of times before.
The basic philosophy behind this opposition strategy is that you can win an argument by introducing more pounds of data and statistics than the opposition. Lawyers routinely use this sleight of hand in responding to discovery requests. However, I believe that a few ounces of critical thinking can outwit one hundred pounds of data. You simply have to be concerned enough about the issue to ask the critical questions. All data and statistics have certain qualifications (often denoted by asterisks and small print) that can greatly affect its relevance and accuracy in supporting the position built from it.
The argument that Health officials typically use is very convincing because it includes a basic valid point. Can the bacteria and pathogens in raw milk cause illness and death in humans? Yes, of course it can and does. However, health statistics will also show that the same bacteria and pathogens in raw milk that can cause human illness and death can be found in pasteurized, USDA inspected milk products. In fact, more people die on average each year from bacteria and pathogens consumed from store bought milk and milk products than they do from raw milk consumption. The unfortunate truth regarding this issue is that we all will die—some of us from auto accidents, cancer, and food-borne pathogens. However, when you view all the causes of human death and illness, you will find many more people will die from auto accidents and cancer than from raw milk consumption. The big difference I see is that West Virginia law does not try to protect you from auto accidents and cancer deaths by making it illegal for a retailer to sell a car or a package of cigarettes or conversely, for you to purchase a car or a package of cigarettes, despite the documented risk to your health. It does, however, expressly prohibit a farmer from selling (and you from buying) raw milk. This is why I contend that the current prohibition on raw milk sales may be unreasonably excessive to the actual health threat.
Statistics may show that raw milk represents a potential health risk, but that risk must be viewed in its proper perspective. Another fact that Health officials conveniently forget to admit in their public statements is that they can never guarantee that any food product, whether processed, unprocessed, or inspected will not cause human illness or death. They will just allow you to assume that. How many processed food recalls do you hear about each year?
Although I can admit that raw milk can contain potentially harmful pathogens, I will contend that the level of pathogens can be held within reasonable safe consumption limits, if the farmer follows the specific best sanitary milking and milk handling standards required by our proposed bill. Furthermore, our bill requires that all raw milk dairy producers offer a tour of their farm to all potential consumers to demonstrate and explain how they comply with all required sanitary milking and milk handling requirements. This provision provides some confidence that the consumer is informed about what he/she is buying and that the farmer understands and complies with the law. I will freely admit that some farmers will flout the law and sell their milk to unsuspecting customers. That has been occurring for years and will continue to do so even if our bill is rejected. That’s also true of all other laws. All I or anyone (for that matter) can do to effectively promote public safety is to impose rational rules that are conducive to safe sales and grant consumers the right to know how their milk was produced. Can we trust informed consumers to make the right choices for themselves? Why else would we require such strict labeling requirements on all food products? Raw milk advocates only seek the same opportunity to sell their products.
The data and statistics that the health department use to document incidents of human illnesses and deaths resulting from raw milk consumption also should be carefully critiqued. Many of the incidents they cite may have been “reported,” but not “confirmed.” Incidents of raw milk illnesses or deaths that were reported may not have been definitively confirmed to have been caused by the milk. Occasionally, raw milk producers have been blamed for causing illnesses when only one of their customers reported an illness even though the milk came from a batch that did not cause an illness among their other customers. In such cases, the source of contamination may not have been the raw milk or it may have entered the milk only after it was purchased. I would also want to know if a farmer in another state who sold raw milk that was confirmed to be contaminated was following all of the best sanitary milking and milk handling standards required by our bill. If not, then that incident may not be relevant in deciding the merits of our proposed bill, even if that farmer was in full compliance with the applicable laws in his/her own state.
It is also important to know if a confirmed illness was caused by the milk producer or the consumer’s incidental mishandling of the milk after it was purchased. Many people today are so far removed from any practical experience in the safe handling and storage of raw milk that they may casually treat it like pasteurized milk. However, the pathogens in raw milk will multiply if its temperature is not maintained at about 35-40 degrees Fahrenheit. You can’t casually leave raw milk sitting out on a table or kitchen counter as long as you can with pasteurized milk. Raw milk also has a shorter safe shelf life for that reason. Our proposed bill requires all raw milk producers to give each customer a detailed list of safe milk storage and handling instructions to ensure that the customer understands his/her responsibilities to keep the raw milk safe for them to consume after the purchase.
I contend that the fear of so-called “superbugs” and pathogens that Health officials often discuss is also grossly excessive to the actual threat. Although these deadly germs and bacteria do exist, they are not typically found in the milk of dairy animals. Sure, many of their less-deadly precursors, such as e-coli, listeria, salmonella, and other potentially “bad” bacteria, can be found naturally in milk at low levels that are not immediately dangerous . Raw milk also contains antibodies that, over initial brief periods of refrigerated storage time, combat and reduce pathogen levels. Some of the same bacteria and pathogens in raw milk that can cause illnesses already exist in our bodies. These bacteria occur naturally and, at the low levels that they occur in impurity-free fresh milk, help strengthen our natural immune systems at an early age.
All mammals have immunity systems that help protect us from the germs and bacteria we routinely encounter in the course of our daily lives. They produce the antibodies that help kill the invading germs, diseases, and bacteria that cause illnesses and death. Those individuals with the strongest immune systems are among the healthiest people in society. If your immune system is underdeveloped or weakened by disease, your threat of illness is greatly enhanced. Most people understand this, as it is common knowledge. Health officials insist that milk be pasteurized (heated to a specific temperature over a specific length of time) prior to consumption to kill any bad pathogens that may be in the milk. I agree that it can make milk potentially safer to drink. However, in making their argument against the sale of unpasteurized milk, public officials conveniently fail to acknowledge a number of other pertinent facts that should be considered.
First of all, pasteurization is an indiscriminate killer. It not only kills the potentially bad bacteria; it also kills the potentially good bacteria that exists naturally in milk we need to help build stronger bodies. In fact, even the presence of bad bacteria in milk can help strengthen human immune systems to reduce the threat of future illnesses. By preventing gentle exposure of our immune systems to these bad pathogens through pasteurization, we are shielding them from the low-level exposure they need to make us stronger. This is why milk is the first and most basic food consumed by all mammals, from the smallest shrew to the biggest elephant or whale. It contains all the most basic nutrients, proteins, vitamins, and other elements that our bodies need for healthy growth. Many of the diseases we face today from weakened immune systems could be caused by our determined efforts to avoid natural childhood exposure to bad pathogens and bacteria. Our growing fear of exposure to bad germs and bacteria is also causing people to over-use antibiotic and antiseptic treatments to the point that we damage our flesh (from over-use of hand sanitizers) and cause the pathogens to become resistant to treatment.
As I said, the newest virulent and deadly superbugs that public officials fear most do not occur naturally in dairy animals. They actually emerge from our efforts to kill their less deadly ancestors. The second fact public health officials do not advertise is that our efforts to create stronger and stronger antibiotics to kill the most basic and common germs and bacteria actually cause them to mutate quickly into stronger and more deadly germs and bacteria. These pathogens are very simple organisms that have no immune systems, as do more complex creatures like humans. Their defense mechanism to ensure their survival against the things that threaten them is their very short lifespans and rapid reproduction rates. Virtually all of them create multiple generations of themselves in a single day. With that rate of reproduction, they are capable of mutating rapidly into stronger (and inherently more deadly or resistant to treatment) forms at a much faster rate than we can develop new and stronger antibiotics to kill them. Therefore, it is the overuse of antibiotic treatments and vaccinations, as well as excessive use of sanitizing agents to clean food processing equipment, that can cause superbugs to get into the foods we produce and eat—including milk. In fact, you are far more likely to contract a flesh-eating bacteria or super staph infection at a hospital, the most highly sanitized environment that most people visit, than you ever would by drinking raw milk .
As I learned how these deadly superbugs have emerged, I decided to call the process, “inverse engineering.” What I mean when I use that term it is that all of our determined efforts to develop drugs to kill bacteria that could cause human illness only makes the bacteria mutate into more drug resistant and deadlier forms. We are not intending to make them stronger, but we are getting the “inverse result” because of their nature. Consequently, our efforts to impose increasingly stricter sanitization in milk production, handling, and processing can have the potentially inverse effect of increasing the public health threat from the mutated end product. The same can, under the right circumstances, be true of some preventative treatments and vaccinations given to dairy animals. This effect should be studied more carefully and specifically by health officials before they conclude that unprocessed milk represents an elixir of death.
As a society, we essentially have two choices. We can either continue to feed our current frenzied germophobic fears by desperately working to create stronger and stronger antibiotics and drugs to kill off deadly superbugs before they can kill us, or we can find better ways to strengthen our immune systems to protect us from the less deadly pathogens recognizing that a small number of us could become ill or die, but that we may avoid a superbug apocalypse. Our opponents choose the former course. We endorse and try to practice the latter. If you wish to have a choice, I encourage you to think about it carefully and quickly, before public health officials and the pharmaceutical companies make that choice for us. The vast majority of all people seeking to buy raw milk fully understand what I have said about it. They want to buy it as part of a lifestyle choice that they have determined to be healthier than can be achieved by consumption of processed store-bought foods. They want to know where their food came from. They accept the potential health risks from their informed choice. Our bill responds to their interest and concerns. It poses no threat to the current Herd Shares bill, large commercial dairy producers, or milk processors. What, then, is the legitimate reason to deny its adoption? Please think carefully about this issue and, as I have suggested, apply a healthy dose of critical thinking to the arguments against it. I have tried to be rational and fair in defending my position. I urge you to do the research for yourself, if you need to be convinced. Regardless of what you think about my reasons for defending sales of raw milk, I ask you to consider why we are urging you to use critical thinking in making your decision, not our opponents.