“It’s totally natural for me as a parent to want to feed my children good food that makes them healthy,” said Liz Reitzig, 31, a mother of five in Bowie, Md., who organized the protest. “In this case that is fresh, clean, raw milk from farmers we know and trust. The idea that we become criminals for engaging in that transaction is what is so appalling.”
The protesters, numbering about 100, combined the impulses of the Occupy Wall Street movement against corporate power and the Tea Party movement against government power. Some drove in from as far away as Illinois and Kentucky to denounce government tyranny, corporate cabals and the “agricultural-industrial complex,” promising more protests and civil disobedience.
The FDA considers it “perfectly safe to feed your kids Mountain Dew, Twinkies and Cocoa Puffs, but it’s unsafe to feed them raw milk, compost-grown tomatoes and Aunt Matilda’s pickles,” said Joel Salatin, the Virginia farmer made famous by the documentary “Food, Inc.,” who joined the protesters.
Crossing state lines
The protest sprang from an FDA sting operation on Amish farmer Dan Allgyer’s tiny dairy of three dozen cows in Kinzer, Pa., that culminated in a predawn raid on the farm last year. Allgyer had been selling milk to consumers in Maryland who had formed a buying club. None of Allgyer’s milk was contaminated. His alleged crime was selling it across state lines.
Raw milk, also known as fresh or unpasteurized milk, comes straight from the cow. Pasteurization kills pathogens by cooking the milk at high temperature. Fresh milk fans say cooking also kills milk’s flavor and nutrients. They contend that if similar rules were applied to other foods, sushi, raw oysters and most fresh fruits and vegetables would be banned.
The FDA considers unpasteurized milk unsafe because it is prone to contamination by cow manure, a predominant source of E. coli in food.
The agency has been waging a low-profile campaign to eliminate raw milk, despite rising demand from consumers. Raw milk is legal in California and 29 other states, while 20 states prohibit at least some sales. Raw milk is common throughout Europe, where it is considered essential to fine cheeses, creams and butters.
Under the authority of a 1987 FDA regulation banning interstate commerce in raw milk, government agents have conducted raids and sting operations on tiny operations across the country, including a guns-drawn raid on the Rawsome buying club in Venice (Los Angeles County), three raids on a boutique goat farm in Ventura County and an undercover investigation of Organic Pastures Dairy in Fresno.
In September, raw milk drinkers held a protest in downtown Santa Cruz, openly drinking milk from an unlicensed dairy.
Asked for comment about the protests, FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey referred to an information statement the agency issued Tuesday stating it has no plans to arrest individual consumers.
“The FDA has never taken, nor does it intend to take, enforcement action against an individual who purchased and transported raw milk across state lines solely for his or her own personal consumption,” the statement said.
The statement said pasteurization was “adopted decades ago as a public health measure to kill dangerous bacteria and largely eliminate the risk of getting sick from one of the most important staples of the American diet,” adding that there have been 143 reported outbreaks of illness related to raw milk since 1987, “some involving miscarriages, still births, kidney failure and deaths.”
FDA defends campaign
The FDA did not say anything about its campaign against interstate transport of fresh milk. In June, the agency’s food safety chief, Michael Taylor, defended the FDA’s actions against raw milk producers, saying, “We believe we’re doing our job,” and describing his agency’s campaign against raw milk producers as “a public health duty.” Taylor denied that the agency is spending too much time and money targeting boutique dairies.
“Our main issue is not to legalize something, but to decriminalize it,” protester Reitzig said, arguing that the government has no business telling people what they are allowed to eat.
“We are taking a stand for civil rights,” said Dennis Winstead, 72, of Silver Spring, Md. “Milk should be legal to drink and sell, not be controlled by the government. They are trying to drive people to large industrial farms that sell a filthy product.”
E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page A – 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle