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‘Making Supper Safe:’ It’s About Risk Management

Raw milk is a uniquely American food fight in search of a reasoned and nonpartisan voice willing to explore and hear out both sets of arguments, and lay it out for the rest of us to consider.

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Ben Hewitt, attempts to provide that voice with his new book, “Making Supper Safe” (Rodale Books, $25) in which he uses raw milk as a case study to explore the broader issues of foodborne illness.

Hewitt undertakes his journey as journalism, consulting with scientists and dairy farmers, foodies and lawyers, including Bill Marler, the food poisoning lawyer who also publishes this site.  But it becomes evident that Hewitt is struggling, that his journalistic instincts are in conflict with a deeper, earthier identity.  Hewitt is also a farmer who, with his wife, operates a small farm in Vermont.

And thereby hangs this tale, because  Hewitt eventually confesses (in parentheses, no less) that, even as he weighs the issue,  he and his family drink raw milk.   And, by hanging out with the likes of Marler, who has sued raw milk dairies over outbreaks of food poisoning, Hewitt consorts with the devil.

At the time of his interview, Marler was engaged in a blogging duel with raw milk advocates, each side spewing “reams of colorful commentary” over  whether and how government should regulate the sale of unpasteurized milk.  Marler plays the part of the regulator.

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“What Marler seemed to be saying is that the root cause of foodborne illness isn’t pathogenic bacteria; it is immorality,” Hewitt writes. “Cutting corners in pursuit of profit… viewing someone’s kidney failure as a line item in a cost-benefit analysis.”

Later he visits with James Stewart, the California entrepreneur who some years ago founded Rawsome, which markets unpasteurized milk and other raw food in Southern California.   Stewart, in turn, leads Hewitt into the strange story of Aajonus Vonderplanitz, the sort of John the Baptist of raw foods.

Vonderplanitz claimed that a diet of carrot juice and other faw foods cured him of dyslexia, cancer and saved his life while providing the basis for his nutritional counseling practice which he claimed cured scores more of their cancers.  Hewitt decides this is “the most unusual human health history I’ve ever encountered.”

And so it goes.  Hewitt hangs out with a friend who feeds himself by Dumpster diving.  He visits researchers trying to unravel the mysteries of E. Coli o157:H7 and other toxic bugs.  Through all this, he resists any overt partisanship, clings to his journalistic objectivity.

But yet his rural New England sensibilities tug quietly at his soul, preventing him from taking up Marler’s argument.  He is clearly offended by accounts of the Los Angeles raid on Rawsome Foods in 2010, during which police seized quantities of unpasteurized milk, cheese and other products.

Hewitt insists he does not blindly accept the sweeping health claims made by Stewart and other raw milk devotees.   Nor does he reject them.

“But there is one part of this story that I believe we should all take very seriously: The right to eat how we choose, and the right to procure and produce these foods without fear of being raided by pistol-wielding officers.”

Who can disagree with that?

But Hewitt has one more stop to make before finishing his manuscript.   He drives down to Connecticut and visits with Chris and Holly Standish, whose daughter Margot was horribly sickened with E. coli in raw milk from a local dairy.  That visit forces the author to acknowledge “that the victims of foodborne illness are real and good people, not so different from me and you.”

“This is an absurdly obvious truth, but still it had managed to elude me… Before I met Margot, the whole notion that one could be made acutely ill from eating contaminated food had seemed somewhat vague and theoretical.”

This is all it took to rattle Hewitt’s libertarian impulses, and to perhaps reconsider Marler’s morality argument.

Dealing with foodborne illness is not about eliminating risk, nor ignoring it. The challenge for legislators and governors and food processors is to regulate our food supply in such a way that Americans can eat what they choose while minimizing the risk that we will poison our children.

© Food Safety News
  • Paul Melzer

    What am I missing here? While not specific, the article suggests that Mr. Marler believes farmers who sell raw milk are morally bereft because of a focus on profit over safety. But the Amish farmers who sell me my raw milk for $3 a gallon (yes, that’s right, a dollar less than supermarkets sell commercial pasteurized milk), are clearly not focusing on profiteering. What am I missing here? Are there particular Washington state dairy farmers who he has litigated against who have given him the impression they just don’t care about people’s health and believe selling raw milk will make them rich? Or, as I suspect, is Mr. Marler like lead agent(s) who has obsessed with putting Rawesome foods out of business, diverting great amounts of taxpayer resources and $ in the process. I can only guess that some particular experience has so shaped his thinking that it will not budge.
    I will say, though, that I am pleasantly surprised to see this article on this website. I will admit that some of the pro raw milk sites are just plain silly in their claims. Now, if you could balance the biases of raw-milk-facts.com and realrawmilkfacts.com, you’d arrive at some truth. By comparison—and few would dispute this—food-bourne illneses in the US are far, far worse from large food industries who are underegulated. If the exact same efforts spent on shutting Rawesome foods had been applied to the poultry industry, for example, the American dinner table would be much safer, imho.
    (read here: http://www.foodconsumer.org/newsite/Opinion/Comments/raw_milk_0822111255.html)

  • Paul, my guess is that you did not read the book yet? When, or if your do, you will find that my issue with morality has nothing to do with raw milk, or any other food product. It is about some of the producers of the food that put profits before safety. That can happen regardless of the size of the farmer or manufacturer.
    Here is another perspective:
    http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/08/publishers-platform-private-ag/

  • Grace Maschinski

    Paul,
    While I admire your passion for local, wholesome foods. I think perhaps you may have misinterpreted Mr. Marlers statement:
    “What Marler seemed to be saying is that the root cause of foodborne illness isn’t pathogenic bacteria; it is immorality,” Hewitt writes. “Cutting corners in pursuit of profit… viewing someone’s kidney failure as a line item in a cost-benefit analysis.”
    I’m sure he wasn’t picking on your Amish farmers, rather any industry, small or large that does not take into consideration the threat of human lives when trying to turn a larger profit.
    After reading this article I immediately searched my local library website to reserve the book, they dont have it but I will search for an electronic version instead. Sounds like it will be a fantastic read!
    Happy Eating

  • Doc Mudd

    Paul, at $3 per gallon your farmer is advancing his/her price nicely from the $1.50 – $2 per gallon they would otherwise receive. So, nearly doubling the price they’re taking in plus doing it by cash transaction, no doubt, and few bothersome records to have to tediously sort through at tax time. “Profiteering”? I’d have to say yes, but you spin it any way you prefer.
    Odd, too, that anyone would fret over “large food industries who are underegulated” (if that’s even true) when the vast majority of our producers are exempt from FSMA by the Tester amendment — not just underegulated but deliberately UNregulated by the most modern food safety legislation in America.
    From what I’ve read, Rawesome was long past due for some law enforcement attention. Previously warned and raided and warned again, but still operating without necessary permits. Plus some very questionable sourcing of food product, at least relative to what customers were being led to believe.
    .
    As for the book review, Hewitt is welcome to eat out of dumpsters and drink unpasteurized milk for all I care. I won’t be wasting $25 on his book. He hasn’t anything new to offer…just another amateur foodie journalist blathering on about his quirky phobias and food obsessions, agonizing over how reality clashes with his fantasies. Anyway, he doesn’t need money coming in to pick through garbage for his meals and I don’t need to pay anyone to describe to me how it’s done. No lives will be changed.

  • “But there is one part of this story that I believe we should all take very seriously: The right to eat how we choose, and the right to procure and produce these foods without fear of being raided by pistol-wielding officers.”
    Who can disagree with that?
    I do. We empower regulatory bodies to protect the American consumer’s health. Implicit in that is that food, drugs, etc which can be demonstrated to be potentially adulterated and or potentially harmful to Americans shall be removed from interstate commerce. If people want to purchase and consume raw milk they have options. That is not the same as saying Rawsome has the right to distribute it to anyone they choose.

  • Before risks can be managed there needs to be the ability to recognize the risks, the sources of these risks, the risk control methods, etc. Join the GCSE-Food & Health Protection campaign to find out more.

  • Steve

    RE: the Muddian mis-statement:”the vast majority of our producers are exempt from FSMA by the Tester amendment — not just underegulated but deliberately UNregulated by the most modern food safety legislation in America.”
    First, the vast majority of food in the marketplace is produced by the big national food purveyors — over 90% of the domestic produce sold in this country is produced by under 10% of the producers. Food from this sector carries an inherently much greater risk — as a contamination event in a single field gets processed and co-mingled with a large amount of product and then shipped all around the country with the potential for creating large-scale mult-state outbreaks.
    Further, while Americans purchase substantial amounts of FDA-regulated imported foods annually, due to the ongoing lack of FDA resources only 1.3% of imported foods are ever inspected.
    Second, the fact is NO producers, large or small, are exempt from the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) regulations.
    During last year’s Congressional deliberations over the FSMA, thanks to feedback from constituents all over the country, Congress paid attention to the non-targeted side effects of the proposed one-size-fits-all legislation on smaller scale producers — ie. complying with regulations that are appropriate to the mega risk and scale of the giant resource-rich national and mult-national food corporations would quickly put the important small local producer sector out of business.
    To remedy this unfair burden on small farms the Senate crafted a number of ALTERNATIVE regulations to apply to small scale farmers. Specifically there were six amendments championed by:
    Senator Sanders (I-VT) providing FDA authority to either protect farms engaged in low or no risk processing or co-mingling activities from new burdensome regulatory requirements or to modify particular regulatory requirements for such farming operations.
    Senator Bennet (D-CO) to reduce unnecessary paperwork and excess regulation required under the preventative control plan and the produce standards sections of the bill, including instructions to FDA to minimize the number of different standards that apply to separate foods, to make requirements scale appropriate, and to prohibit FDA from requiring farms and other food facilities to hire outside consultants to write food safety plans.
    Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) (current Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee) to provide for a USDA-delivered competitive grants program for food safety training for farmers, small processors and wholesalers, with a priority on small and mid-scale farms. Numerous other initiatives including a joint FDA-USDA-Cornell University Produce Safety Alliance project and are already operational.
    Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to strip the bill of wildlife-threatening enforcement against “animal encroachment” of farms and require FDA to apply sound science to any requirements that might impact wildlife and taxpayer-funded conservation project wildlife habitat.
    Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to protect farmers from extensive and expensive traceability and recordkeeping requirements if they sell food directly to consumers or to grocery stores, to allow labeling that preserves the identity of the farm through to the consumer to satisfy traceability requirements, and to in most cases limit farm recordkeeping to the first point of sale when the product leaves the farm.
    Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Kay Hagan (D-NC) to require farm identification for direct -marketing farms and require very small farms and food processing facilities as well as direct-market farms who sell locally to comply with state regulation or to opt for modified, scale-appropriate federal regulation based on their size and local range of operation.
    Of course the FSMA is one thing and the actual regulations that finally come out of the legislation quite another. FDA is currently in the rule-making phase with regulations ready for public comment expected by early 2012. Although the devil is always in the details, the small scale farm sector is encouraged that FDA, with their admitted zero experience on farms, is reaching out to the sustainable agriculture community for input, advice and expertise via conference calls and farmer listening sessions.
    See: http://fdatransparencyblog.wordpress.com/2011/08/20/fda-tells-farmers-we-need-to-learn-from-you/
    Whether this is just FDA PR or not time will tell…

  • Cadetsfan

    The comments by Doc Mudd are a very clear concise description of the reality of large scale food manufacturing. Regulatory issues aside the public should expect safe food regardless of where they purchase it. I am sure the author’s visit with the Standish family did make an impression on him how could it not ?
    He states and admits the obvious with “The victims of foodborne illness are real and good people, not so different from me and you.” I have to ask who is the “me and you” he is referring to in this statement ?
    The “misinformed” who are getting on the band wagon of eating raw foods with no knowledge of the science or the “well informed” that seem to hold their knowledge in too high an esteem. I guess I will figure that out when I read the book.
    All consumers should be well informed so that they can make the right choice to eat what they want as they should be free to do.
    I look forward to reading this book, it is Mr. Hewitt’s right to question the current food safety/science establishment and is obviously his passion.
    A conviction of this type is too interesting for most to ignore.

  • Doc Mudd

    We are indebted here to “Steve” for providing so detailed an explanation of why “making supper safe” promises to remain an ongoing and deliberate challenge in local neighborhoods everywhere.
    There are thousands of tiny food manufacturers and about a million “lifestyle farmers” by UDSA’s count who “Steve” refers to as he chronicles how FSMA, the modern food safety program, was gutted to exempt the farmers market tycoons and CSA CEOs from bothersome accountability. As he enumerates:
    Sanders carefully “protected” food selling hobbyists from annoying “regulation”.
    Bennett’s “prohibitions” let hobby food sellers off the hook from preventive approaches as simple as thinking through food safety protocols and planning accordingly.
    Stabenow seized the day and the opportunity to flush some more grant money into the lifestyle farming sector, feeding their increasing appetite for government cash giveaways.
    Boxer insisted animals and wildlife must remain intermingled with food crops on lifestyle farms, assuring continued incidents like the recent Jaquith poisoned strawberry debacle in Oregon. http://www.marlerblog.com/case-news/oregon-strawberry-e-coli-outbreaks—it-really-was-bambi-that-did-it/
    Brown prevented FSMA from requiring any useful paper trail of transactions by lifestyle farmers, effectively obfuscating not only health department epidemiologists investigating food poisoning, but tax department officers and others, as well. (The referenced Rawesome situation springs to mind here.)
    And finally, Tester & Hagen wrote the formal generous exemption of lifestyle farms from FSMA, punting the food safety ball to the states, whose uniform food safety legislation is mostly unchanged during the span of anyone’s memory.
    So, the daily business of “making supper safe” for your family, if you’re chowing down on “local” farmers market or CSA food from Tester-exempt lifestyle farmers, will continue to be your own personal responsibility…and challenge — caveat emptor is the operative rule of the Tester-exempt market. (Where’s the lavish government grant funding to train us food consumers to unmistakeably identify unsafe food by sight and smell at farmers markets?)
    Ahhh, but think of it as a thrilling adventure…just like the dumpster divers (though they may actually have FSMA assurance of safety in professionally manufactured food products they scrounge with packaging intact).
    This is how it has to be, folks, to “protect” the carpe diem, laissez faire free-wheeling “lifestyle farm” profiteer. Carpe diem for them, caveate emptor for you and your family. Enjoy!

  • Paul Melzer

    I think much of the argument that I am considering is how much government regulation is the right amount. I believe in government oversight and regulation of industry in the name of safety. In fact, I think many industries need far more regulation and oversight. However, just as I would not want to see tobacco outlawed (I am not a smoker), I don’t like seeing rights taken away. The right to smoke, as long as you’re not indirectly causing others to smoke secondhand, should not be taken away. Part of the regulation that we as a society agree to is placing health warnings on tobacco products. Anyone who smokes who believes they are not at higher risk of disease than nonsmokers is simply in denial.
    Now, as to raw milk: in addition to regulating standards for the production of raw milk—some states have these to varying degrees, if I understand correctly—why couldn’t we simply make it mandatory that a warning label be placed on each container of raw milk. Make the warning as scary as need be, then allow those who wish to consume the stuff be allowed to, in full knowledge of the risks.
    While this would be insufficient to protect children, you can point to many things available to adults that need to be keep away from children. Make adults accountable for their children’s safety, holding them responsible if their child becomes ill from raw milk (with legally required warning labels).
    Again, I think the passion on both sides is fascinating. Equally so for myself. I’m not a Libertarian—I believe even more resources need to be allocated to consumer safety (i.e. industry regulation, whether food or otherwise). I’m also realistic that regulation by itself is insufficient; health safety requires the consumer and industry to be smart (and concerned). I don’t believe in a government unchecked in its reach. We must have free and ready access to materials (foods or otherwise) that, while carrying some risk, we deem safe enough for our own selves.
    CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. How many of these are from raw milk?
    Again, thanks for the dialogue. I really think that setting aside some of the emotion can help us find some points of agreement.

  • I think it’s great everyone wants consumers to be well informed. And consumers should be as informed as possible. But relying on informed consumers isn’t reality. Government protecting its’ citizens is one of governments most important functions. Be it protecting consumers from improper building construction, improper food handling, or unsafe products. These are just a few of the things that a consumer could not easily see or find out for themselves.
    I wish all mankind was inherently good also. But what I’ve found is “when money talks, safety walks.” I have no faith in self-regulation, as it has proven to not work time and time again.

  • Paul Melzer

    Agribusiness is built on profit, not just for the farmer and his or her family, but for the corporate execs and the stockholders. I have no beef with that formula, since it’s part of the democratic system, but Doc would probably outlaw backyard vegetable gardens if he could…it would certainly make his job easier.
    I’d like to meet some of the farmers market farmers who are buying vacation homes in the Bahamas off the money they rake in (now I’m getting sarcastic, sorry). The Amish farmer who supplies me, has about 6 milking cows. You do the math, Doc, since you seem to indicate you know just how rich they’re getting off of the $3/gallon they charge. There must be something there that I’m not getting. Morality issues surrounding large agribusiness are so much greater and effect so many millions more consumers (Cargill, 16000 metric tons of meat tainted for example) than farmers market vendors. I’m not saying they should be exempt from oversight, but geez luise.

  • Doc Mudd

    OK, Paul, now back out your calculations on a per unit and per customer basis and reality will come into focus. Your precious Amishman serves maybe 40 milk customers directly per week at a gallon each; Cargill (your example) how many customers, of anything and everything, directly and indirectly per week? What is each producer’s exposure to risk and what is their track record if even just one person gets sick, even overnight, from a respective product of theirs?
    By selling raw milk to you the Amishman “rakes in” (your terminology) an extra $4000 per year — not insignificant in that culture. So, you were thinking you were taking unfair advantage of your milk producer by paying ‘only’ $3 per gallon, cash on the barrelhead? Shame on you (or, rather, joke’s on you, Englishman).
    I have no beef with backyard home gardens (been there, done that, as it turns out). When hobby farmers misrepresent surplus produce of dubious origin & safety in order to sell it for cash to unsuspecting customers, well that I have some reservations (been on the receiving end of that stick, too, as it turns out).
    Know this: Food safety respects no business size, geography, religious affiliation or romantic notion of yesteryear. Turns out your kids and grandkids can be poisoned just as easily by the hobby farmer next door as by Cargill…maybe easier as FSMA gradually comes on line.
    http://www.marlerblog.com/cargill-linked-to-10-major-outbreaks-10-deaths-three-stillbirths-and-347-illnesses/
    http://www.marlerblog.com/case-news/know-your-farmer-know-your-food—except-when-it-is-not-the-food-they-grew/

  • Paul Melzer

    Thanks for the reply, Doc.
    You attribute to me the phrase “rakes in.” You know that I was only responding to your calling them profiteering tycoons (your words).
    I should continue your calculations a couple more steps just to balance the perspective. My “precious Amishman” (sarcasm noted) has a family of four kids and a wife, all of whom consume the milk they produce (milk and yogurt, cottage cheese, etc., etc.), let’s just say a half gallon a day, probably more, so take that milk off “the books.” And I don’t think that you calculated the costs of keeping the cows. Don’t ask me to know how much that costs, but it would be unfair to assume all Amish get things for free from their neighbors; there are the expenses of hay during winter, grain, vet visits, equipment and fuel, etc.
    I understand the point about size—how many Cargill customers per incident of illness, vs small farmer(s) per incident. So what can government do best to protect its citizens? 1) continue and expand regulatory oversight of the Cargills in the country, the ones who supply food to the masses, 2) educate the citizens on food safety and risks, and 3) regulate the small farmer, go after the ones who thumb their nose at any sort of accountability to their customers’ health, who place profit above all else. 1, 2, 3, in that order.
    I’m not one of the folks who think raw milk will cure cancer. I just really like milk and prefer by a hundred to one the taste of raw, fresh Jersey cow milk to typical store bought milk. At the very least you have to admit that giant agribusiness has yet to create the same quality of flavors that can be had from many small farm’s produce. More often than not it pales by comparison. I understand the risks involved in drinking raw milk. I don’t want access to it to be illegal.

  • chris kazaam

    Let us stupid people choose to spend $15 for a gallon of raw grass-fed or corn-fed, whatever raw milk. Let us die and you’ll never have to deal with us. But NO, you bastards who want to PROTECT us, continue to make it difficult to obtain such “controversial” foods so that we have to hire lawyers to fight you statist parasites and have these “national discussions” about our alleged “rights.” I love these recalls. It’s based on “protecting us,” but really it’s just one of a series of blows these statist PARASITES in the public health sector & legal system use to help keep the raw dairy business weaker and weaker in the light of so many more healthier & stronger customers who are soooo stupid enough to pay 3 to 4 times the “regular” price of commercially available FAKE dairy products. As usual, if the recall is WRONG, no one reimburses the farmer for all the dairy he/she was forced to throw out. We know that the whole point of all these protective regulations is just to feed upon the world’s paranoia of actual liberty until these stupid raw dairy farmers give up. But when all liberty is gone, the statist bastards will take up raw dairy for THEMSELVES, restricting it only to the hipster elite. But that’s for another time. In the meantime, Marley, you know what you are, and enjoy your day