In the April 30 issue of the New Yorker, writer Dana Goodyear provided two lucid dairy histories: of milk consumption in the U.S., and of the more recent battles between raw-milk advocates and raw-milk skeptics.
Goodyear noted raw milk’s place in our current retro preferences for traditionally produced foods, as well as its complicated imagery: purported superfood, possible cure-all, potential pathogenic vector, and patriotic symbol of the presumed American right to produce, buy, and consume whatever we wish. And then there’s milk’s primal significance:
Milk, be it human or cow, is the first food to which most humans are exposed; it is unlike other products both for consumers, who associate it with basic nourishment, and for regulators, who see its oversight as a grave responsibility. Michele Jay-Russell, of the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at UC Davis, said, “From a public-health perspective, milk has fallen into the category of water. Providing a clean milk and water supply is fundamental to what the government sees as its job. If the government were stopping people from selling impure water, it’s hard to imagine there would be a great public outcry.” But Jay-Russell acknowledges the frustration of consumers who can’t get a product that they feel they need. “The crux of the conundrum is: why shouldn’t it be their choice?”
The Tea Party, with its libertarian ideology, supports the pro-raw faction, dubbing the stuff “freedom milk.” But the comparison that most commentators have seized upon is Goodyear’s drug analogy: “Raw milk is the new pot, only harder to get.”
Not all regulation is necessarily bad, Goodyear cautioned, and not all sentimental assumptions about food production are valid: “Just because a farm is small does not mean that the farmer always makes good decisions about how he raises the food you eat. A community that resists labeling and inspection as government intrusion puts itself at the mercy of its suppliers.”
Not included in her magazine feature is Goodyear’s blog post about the chef Dan Barber and his take on raw milk. Barber loves raw milk, but added that raw-milkers tend to ignore the bigger picture of how our milk is produced:
“The picture is not just about pasteurization,” he said. “It’s part of a much larger question about how you’re raising the cattle and what quality of milk you’re trying to produce. To some people, having a USDA official tell you that you have to heat the milk to a certain point takes away your American right to live, but I’d say you have a much more egregious problem if you’re importing transgenic grain from Iowa and polluting the Gulf of Mexico with so much nitrogen that it’s causing dead zones.”
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