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.
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.
“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.