Heckled At The Raw Milk Symposium

I have survived the AVMA raw milk symposium and, more importantly, survived the flying with a seven-month-old baby. Seattle is as wonderful as I remember it and even provided us with two clear, sunny days while we were there.


I may post an analysis on the Ethicurean but until then, I thought I would add here that it was great to meet the food safety professionals who did speak to me. I had lunch with raw milk blogger David Gumpert, California food safety advocates Michele Jay-Russell and Michael Payne, Maryland State Public Health Veterinarian Katherine Feldman, and Claudia Coles from the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Also in attendance at the symposium and at our lunch table was Mary McGonigle-Martin, mother of Chris Martin, a child sickened in the 2006 California E. coli outbreak linked to a raw dairy. (Mary and her son Chris are pictured at right.) We had a fun and energetic discussion at lunch that involved a tennis match of sorts between David Gumpert and Michael Payne. I may be an odd duck but I agreed part of the time with Payne and part of the time with Gumpert. Coles showed us some photos from Washington raw milk dairies and described how dairy practices could be improved to increase raw milk safety.

In my own talk I presented results of the raw milk advocate survey that described views of raw milk advocates. I include the slides and the abstract below the jump. My basic argument is that consumers should have open access to raw milk but that they should also be informed about their choice. “Free choice” of raw milk cannot be made in the presence of misinformation. As I write on the Ethicurean, there is some incorrect information about raw milk that is impeding consumer choice. In that context, I described some of the views held by raw milk consumers during my talk. The audience laughed that “flavor” is one of the reasons for consuming raw milk. A previous speaker had mentioned that they only way they could replicate the flavor of raw milk in a taste test was to add fecal matter to pasteurized milk. When I mentioned “flavor” as a reason, the audience laughed. I said, “Hey, I like the taste.” They laughed at a number of other views as well. I was not particularly surprised. A previous speaker called raw milk consumers “stupid.” One veterinarian interrupted my talk to say, “How can educated people believe this? This is gibberish.”

They would really laugh at some of the things on this blog or in my lifestyle. I do not have a television. I am sure that makes me nutty but it also saves me a lot of time. If I had less time, I might not have the time to hang my sheets on the clothesline and to admire their beauty as they sway in the wind with the Sierra behind them. If I had a TV I also might not have time to heat my food in a skillet or oven and instead heat it in a microwave. That would be a shame but not because I think using a microwave is going to radiate me but because I think it is a good way to ruin the texture of the good food that I do eat. I have my own laying hens and love the flavor of their eggs even though they take more time and money to maintain. Besides, who would babysit Frederick if not for these hens?

Some of us just live in a different world.


Ironically, it was food injury attorney Bill Marler who defended alternative lifestyle choices at the meeting (pictured at right with the very tired Alastair). Recently, commenters on his blog have accused him of being in the pocket of “big ag.” In the symposium, he did imply that he would sue raw milk advocacy group the Weston A. Price Foundation over providing false product safety information to consumers, he also took the heckling group to task on their behavior during my presentation. He asked them how they could expect to understand raw milk consumers if they laugh at them and call them stupid.

A number of people were apologetic to me at the end of the day, apologizing for the behavior of their colleagues. I really didn’t take offense and I was touched that many were so concerned that I was offended. Actually, I would not expect everyone to understand the sheets on the clothesline either. Not everyone has the luxury of sheets dried in fresh mountain air.

Added for clarification:

he also took the heckling group to task on their behavior during my presentation.”

The whole group didn’t heckle. Most were great. A good number did laugh at the survey responses but there was one participant (and non-presenter) who interrupted with questions that could have offended me. The moderator and conference organizer Michele Jay-Russell shut down her comments and apologized. Later, many people apologized to me. Apparently someone took a good guess at what would boost my mood and complimented me on having beautiful skin.

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On the presentation:

Abstract: Raw milk advocates cite the regulatory restrictions across the country as impeding the right of consumers to choose raw milk. However, this limitation on consumer behavior would be better defined as an issue of “free access.” “Choice” is a psychological process whereby consumers decide to consume raw milk over some other food product. This paper makes the distinction between “access” and “choice” where “access” is the structural barrier to the purchase of raw milk, structures typically built by government regulators.

A precondition of “free choice” is that consumers can and do process complex information about raw milk in making their decision. Certainly most consumers do not have the scientific background to examine primary literature on raw milk benefits and risks. As in many other complex decisions consumers make every day, consumers turn to opinion leaders to help them make sense of the complex array of information. Using a raw milk survey of 986 U.S. consumers, this paper examines the information flow in the raw milk movement and the information quality and discusses the implications for free choice.

Slides: Technical difficulties. I’ll post them soon.

16 Responses to Heckled At The Raw Milk Symposium
  1. Serena

    You did a great job with this, exceptional presentation and writing.

  2. I love it! Real professionals aren’t they? The funny thing is, when our WAP groups here go to Annapolis & DC and serve them a buffet of farm fresh food including raw dairy….they sure don’t push back from the table and spit saying, “bluck, that taste like poop!” (a more graphic word would make the pt better but I’m a girl that tries not to have a dirty mouth!) Kinda hypocritical! But hey, it’s free food and it seems as if the politicians in our govt take anything that’s free.
    I’m not sure why were such a threat….except it comes back to the mighty $$$$$!!!

  3. Interesting….I think that the whole dismissal type response is common when it comes to many of the choices folks make that are outside of the mainstream.
    It’s really easy to call others “stupid” or “selfish” or any other number of adjectives, but not the least bit productive – and it’s certainly not going to convince others of your viewpoint!

  4. I haven’t had raw milk (yet), but have many friends who use it and claim that the flavor is so much better than the stuff you can buy in stores – even organic milk. Their raves have me wanting to research more about it and have my family try some – yes, just on flavor alone!
    I’m sorry you were treated like that but am so proud of you for not being offended. I think it would be difficult to stand in front of any group that’s heckling!
    Off to read at some of your links… :D

  5. I should clarify that the lion’s share of the people there were very professional. Our lunch discussion, for instance, was great. We probably all learned a lot about other viewpoints.
    There are obviously extreme opinions on both sides. Some just have difficulty discussing other people’s lifestyle choices. Ironically, that was part of the point of my presentation. How helpful is it, for instance, to say that consuming raw milk is like playing Russian roulette with your health? The last guy who played Russian roulette had a one-in-six chance of death. With all of the raw milk I’ve consumed in my life, I’m really living on borrowed time apparently. It’s also an exaggeration to say that raw milk is “uniquely safe” as is the WAPF argument. Neither allows consumers to make an informed decision.
    Raw milk tastes great and it’s healthy unless it’s contaminated. If you can’t risk the possibility of contamination, you should probably consume something else. It’s hard to know what the likelihood is. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a bit of focus on that?

  6. “Add fecal matter to pasteurized milk”==Now I have heard everything!! I suppose they were trying to say raw milk tastes like sh_t. Well, I have news for those Vets–it doesn’t! And, it is the best tasting milk me and my family have ever enjoyed!
    And they laughed cuz they think we are ignorant!! I think it is the other way around. Adding fecal matter to pasteurized milk won’t help it taste any better, I’m afraid. Its just the pits!

  7. Mary McGonigle-Martin

    Hi Amanda,
    The information you gathered from your survey is a first of its kind. I’m looking forward to an interesting discussion on this blog and others once you post the results. You did a fantastic job presenting and if the format had allowed for about an hour discussion after your presentation I think some interesting dynamics would have happened.
    In defense to the veterinarians and public health professionals who attended this conference, they have a strong set of belief systems about raw milk based on 100 years of research. I can’t remember who made the statement about pasteurization as a success story for eliminating disease. They are very proud of the history behind pasteurization and the number of lives it has saved. Someone threw out a figure of 30%; that’s how many people became ill from raw milk prior to pasteurization. The fear is that if raw milk was available to all that would like to drink it, we’d have that 30% figure back. People in the raw milk community have to respect that this fear is real and that it motivates the decisions made at state and federal levels on this topic.
    Apply the above belief system to the finding that many people choose to drink raw milk because it tastes better. I think there was a strong reaction because this is what was going on in their heads, “You’ve got to be kidding me! You’d take the risk of pathogens because the milk tastes better!” I think they were shocked at this finding. I don’t think they were laughing at you. I think they were laughing at the statement.
    I think there is also room in the discussion for consumers who are interested in purchasing raw milk from cows who are grass fed (because they want clean milk) and then can pasteurize it at home. This can be another “choice”. The choices don’t have to be raw milk vs. factory farmed milk. I know the WAPF supporters go crazy over this thought because they believe it defeats the purpose; the milk is no longer healthy once it has been pasteurized.
    The choice seem so simple to me because of what my son experienced. Buy clean milk from a small family farm where the cows are raised like cows, grass fed and roam the pastures. Once the milk is brought home, then pasteurize it. To supplement the beneficial bacteria that is lost during the heating process, make yogurt and kefir.
    It was great meeting you.

  8. Hi Mary. It was great meeting you too. Another option for small farmers is to purchase a small pasteurizer that they use on site. There are fairly inexpensive ones that would be feasible. It is a great option for a small boutique operation that wanted to sell pasteurized milk, or perhaps for a farmer that wants to sell both.
    I can see avoiding raw milk if flavor is the only reason for consuming it. It does seem a little self-indulgent to choose a food simply for appeal. If that was the driving factor in my diet I would eat a hamburger and fries just about every day here at one of the local cowboy restaurants. I am sure I would weigh at least 400 pounds as well.

  9. Hi Kimberly. I suppose there are batches that taste pretty bad with high levels of spoiling organisms. The cow’s diet affects it too. But, for the most part, the flavor is superior in my opinion. Mary makes a good point though that flavor is a trivial reason to consume a product that could make you ill. The top reasons consumers gave for consuming it related to beneficial bacteria.

  10. Mary McGonigle-Martin

    I also think it is important to mention that anyone interested in becoming a raw dairy farmer, but has no history in animal husbandry needs to be educated first. How does a person become educated in this area if they were not raised on a farm? Should the state provide education where cow-shares are legal? Should WAPF provide education?
    It sounds romantic to move the country and buy a few cows to milk, but there is a lot more information that is needed than just good intentions. Providing only grass to cows for nutrition works if you have enough grass. Pasture fed does not mean a patch of grass.
    The pictures we viewed at lunch is the perfect example of what “not to do” if you run a black market cow-share program. The cows were fed only grass, but the problem was there wasn’t enough grass. The cows looked like starving children in Africa. They were emaciated It is not a good sign if you can count all the ribs on the cow. This family also didn’t have a clue about sanitation—scary! This farm made the case as to why raw milk regulation is imperative.
    “Know your farmer” is a mantra the raw milk movement uses for self regulation. Here’s the logic, if you know your farmer, visit the farm, there is trust automatically built into this system. Many families participated in the cow-share program I mentioned above, but obviously noone knew what to look for. They trusted this family farming operation and people became seriously ill.

    • SaanenMom

      Mary McGonigle-Martin…I agree with you. In Idaho, it is now legal to sell unpasteurized milk from 3 cows, and/or 7 goats and/or 7 sheep. Herd shares allow more animals. I raise reg. Saanen goats. The requirement is to test them yearly for TB & Brucellosis, have an ID USDA approved label for selling off the farm & monthly unannounced tests of milk. We can advertise & sell to anyone, anywhere except restaurants. It’s a boost for the small producer.

      The head of the ID USDA, does not believe in unpasteurized milk, but knows that there are people that would get it some way or other. So, he contacted my goat club & dairy cow people to write the regulations. He was concerned with safety, as I am. The State congress passed it and it’s going well, I believe. The monthly inspections check for Standard Plate Count (SPC), Coliform, Phasphatase (soap/chemicals) and Somatic Cell Count (SCC). This spring they added the Q-Fever test once. It may be done monthly since a goat herd had it in their milk.

      You brought up a valid point: I also think it is important to mention that anyone interested in becoming a raw dairy farmer, but has no history in animal husbandry needs to be educated first. How does a person become educated in this area if they were not raised on a farm? Should the state provide education where cow-shares are legal? Should WAPF provide education?
      You have a right to be concerned about this. I was raised with different animals so have a background in animal husbandry. While I didn’t know about goats, I knew about cows and they are similar in most aspects. It didn’t take much learning to get up to speed on my goats & I raised them for 12 yrs before starting to sell unpasteurized milk last year. But who is going to teach the new, to livestock, farmer? Right now, it’s no one!! Should it be the State? Maybe. Should it be WAPF….I think not. I’ve run across some in WAPF that insist that cows/goats not be fed anything but pasture. However, what they don’t realize is that these animals have been highly bred specifically for producing milk and they have to be fed accordingly or you have a unhealthy animal.

      Case in point. I met a guy at the local farmer’s market a couple years ago and started talking with him. He was given 3 goats & knew nothing about them. He bred the scroungy buck to the adult doe and had twin doelings in the spring of ’11. Last fall he brought those 2 doelings to me for breeding. So this spring he had 3 does having kids. I told him to bring the kids by for horn bud removal at 7 days. He waited til they were almost a month! I burned one and told him the other had to be banded in about a month. When I checked later, I found that the horned kid had died. He doesn’t know why, it just did. That is unacceptable as there is always a reason. Then he lost another kid & doesn’t know why. Two out of 5 kids is not good. A month goes by and he’s called me 3 times wanting to know what I sell my milk for ($7.50 gal) and he’s thinking about selling milk! I told him to hold off as he needed to learn more about milking, proper cleanliness techniques, how to care for animals, etc. Nope, needed to get rid of this milk. So, I told him what he had to do. He did it, got his permit and then promptly went on CraigsList, found 2 does in milk at a cheap price & bought them. He came by my place so I could band their horns…believe me, goats with horns are a danger to humans and other animals. Those 2 does were on the fairly thin side. Shortly after, he has his first unannounced State test and was confident that the test would be okay because his milk “tastes good”! No clue!! The SPC was double what it should have been and coliform was at 150 (25 allowed)! He couldn’t understand why. While legal, The Somatic Cell Count, which indicates mastitis, was at 730,000 (750K is top end), my vet says anything over 250K is mastitis. We are allowed 2 warnings in 5 mths and then have to be retested within 21 days if we have a 3d warning. We are also not allowed to sell any more milk. I figured that this would slow him down so he could learn. Nope, went out and bought 3 does from a guy that raised them for 20 yrs. The guy had wormed them & gave this new owner some worm medicine for all his goats…which he promptly gave. The ONLY thing that saved him from putting milk into the human chain is that he called to tell me about this wonderful buy he got. It was a good thing I was driving to the VA in Boise for an appt or I would have gone straight to his place and got in his face! As it was, I did it over the phone. When I told him he has to have vet approval for medications, including wormers, he wanted to know why. This man just turned 61 and has never raised livestock at all. My belief is that what he was sees is $$$ as he’s selling to a place near Sun Valley for $10/gal. He does not know the the nutritional value of unpasteurized milk. He doesn’t know what diseases goats can get, what are zoonotic (passes to other species) or how to treat for what they have. Then he went out and bought doe #6. They are not on pasture and he has them in (at most) a 10×10 pen. For 8 milkers, he should be feeding 1 75 lb bale of hay a day. He told me a bale lasts 3 – 4 days! He’s giving me gray hair & I won’t refer anyone to him.

      So, should it be the State to train new people? Maybe. Should it be WAPF….I think not. I’ve run across some in WAPF that insist that cows/goats not be fed anything but pasture. However, what they don’t realize is that these animals have been highly bred specifically for producing milk and they have to be fed accordingly or you have a unhealthy animal. Actually, my thoughts are that a person new to livestock should not be able to sell unpasteurized milk for at least 5 yrs unless they go to an ag school and learn about animal husbandry. It doesn’t have to be a 4 yr course with a degree, but a one or two yr in depth study should do it. But that will never happen. So, I don’t know.

  11. In response to Mary’s comment about the pictures of a raw dairy operation, we did see some pictures of unhealthy cows from at least two farms that were involved in outbreaks at one point or another. It appears that there are some people who are starting operations who really don’t have a background in animal husbandry and probably should seek out more guidance as they begin to care for animals. Even a family cow needs a certain amount of attention and expertise. If we go the homesteading route, we need to be sure to educate ourselves about the animals we keep. I am sure that most people do this but the pictures were a reminder to me that probably not everyone does educate themselves as much as is necessary even though their intentions may be very good.
    I know that here on our property sometimes are chickens get short-changed in their care. From the looks of the eggs on my counter top (covered with manure), I need to clean their house and add new bedding. Not everyone would know why the eggs would be so dirty and wouldn’t necessarily know how to reduce contamination of the egg shell and they might sell them anyway. (We consume all of our own eggs.)

  12. Hello Mary and Amanda,
    What farm was this that you are talking about where the cow shares were going on with the poor sanitation?

  13. That wouldn’t do any good. They are out of business anyway.

  14. I totally agree with pampered mom that the whole dismissal type response is common when it comes to many of the choices folks make that are outside of the mainstream.

  15. jack hooper

    Very good job Amanda. Greetings.

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