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The Battle Over Raw Milk: Let's Ditch the Hysterics and Give People a Choice

Few foods provoke such strong reactions (for and against it) as raw milk. Find out why.

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Regulators, on the other hand, see only the risks and dismiss the alleged benefits. Unfortunately, the escalation of the fight (particularly by the fringier elements on either side) harms all involved, as it moves everyone further away from a safe and healthy compromise.

Individuals such as Mark McAfee, owner of the largest raw dairy in America, have the ability to single-handedly alter the debate for the worse. McAfee engages in several practices making him unique among raw-dairy farmers. He sells his products in retail locations like Whole Foods (within California only), and he outsources* some of his production as his demand outstrips his supply. However, that means that he does not have direct control over all of the dairy products sold under his label, and it also means that his customers have relatively little information about where their raw dairy products come from.

McAfee's herd is the largest of all U.S. raw dairies -- 300 cows -- which means he lacks the ability to pay as much attention to each cow as a raw dairy farmer who has, say, 30 cows. McAfee wields a significant amount of political power within California due to his colorful personality and his many high-profile Hollywood clients. McAfee's unique practices (like outsourcing), combined with his combative nature, tend to inflame regulators and bring the debate over the larger issue of raw milk one step further away from calm, rational negotiation.

In a California State Senate hearing on raw milk, Dr. Michael Allen Payne made several recommendations to make raw milk safer, targeting McAfee specifically. He called for criminal penalties for outsourcing from nonlicensed dairies, regulating colostrums as a dairy product (not a nutritional supplement with no sanitary standards, as it is now), and ending the interstate shipping of raw-milk products labeled as pet food to avoid the laws against interstate shipment.

He also particularly objected to the marketing of raw milk as a drug (which is not allowed for any food) and marketing it to mothers with small children. An adult can make an educated decision to take a risk, he and other regulators say, whereas a child cannot. Payne recommends requiring point-of-sale warnings for at-risk populations and making warnings for at-risk populations on product containers more visible and understandable.

He also calls for raw-milk manufacturers to be held to the same standard of review and approval of health-and-safety claims made in promotional materials as applied to other foods, nutritional supplements and pharmaceuticals. That would require that all health claims for raw milk promotional materials be pre-approved by the government.

On the other hand, parents are always in the position of making decisions about their children's diets. And many adults make poor choices for their children: one study found that on any given day, one-third of the nation's children eat fast food and that fast food was the main food source for 29 to 38 percent of all children studied.

Feeding children fast food -- particularly as their main food source -- is more than just a risk. It's 100 percent guaranteed to harm a child's health even though it is perfectly legal. And unlike milk, no one has provided even anecdotal reports of health benefits from fast food. Rather than interfere with family decisions, regulators' best strategy may be to set high standards for farmers producing raw milk so that parents have the option to choose raw milk that is as safe as possible.

Last, Payne calls for several safety standards to ensure that raw milk is as safe as possible. He wants to require recording devices for equipment cleaning of raw dairies, require the development of an HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plan for each raw dairy (this is a common food-safety strategy, first developed to ensure the safety of food given to astronauts in space) and increase regulatory pathogen testing of raw-milk products.

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