Food law isn’t necessarily difficult but it is complicated. The controversy over the sale of raw (unpasteurized) milk illustrates this complexity because it pits two competing interests – food safety and freedom of choice – squarely against each other.
Most public health officials warn of the dangers of raw milk and point to numerous reported cases of illnesses and even deaths traced to the consumption of raw milk. Raw milk advocates claim that the real health benefits of milk are compromised when it is pasteurized. Raw milk also tastes better, they claim. They dispute the so-called evidence of illnesses and sometimes claim that it’s not the raw milk that’s to blame, but the cleanliness of the milking and bottling operation. Finally, they argue, shouldn’t consumers be free to make that choice?
Similar to questions about GMO foods, the safety of raw milk is not a legal question. It’s a question of science, one of fact. Depending on your tolerance for risk and your definition of safety, raw milk is either safe or it isn’t.
In most states, you can’t go out and buy raw milk at the local store. If it’s your own cow, you can drink the lactic secretions (that’s what milk is) of your bovine beauty. A few raw milk aficionados have created a way around the ban on sales by entering into “cow-share” agreements in which people “own” a share of a cow or herd and therefore are just drinking their own milk. A clever legal construct indeed.
“Big dairy,” if that’s what you want to call the milk industry, is opposed to the sale of raw milk because (a) that’s not what they sell and (b) any bad press from someone getting sick from raw milk tends to taint the entire industry.
So what’s the answer? If people can order their hamburgers cooked rare and their eggs sunny side up – both risky choices (according to most public health officials), raw milk would seem to be no more than a variant of those foods. There are two problems, though. First, when people do get sick, there are health costs that can go beyond the individual. Second, what happens when an adult who is willing to take the risk of drinking raw milk has his or child drink it as well? Then again, what about adults who let their children eat rare burgers and undercooked eggs?
Right now, the various states have taken widely different approaches to the raw milk controversy. A dozen states allow its sale in retail stores, seventeen permit it on farms, four allow it through cow-share agreements, and the remaining states ban it altogether.
No wonder cows have that startled look on their faces.
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