As I mentioned in my previous post I did attend as planned the May 1 public meeting in Bloomington of the raw milk steering committee (not it’s actual name; I’m still not sure what it is, as it keeps changing. I think the latest version is Dairy Working Group, but don’t quote me on that). This was my first time ever in participating in a “grassroots” political event, one where the public was invited to comment. Following are my personal observations with some facts thrown in. For some excellent and detailed reporting on this whole topic, though, I highly recommend the series being written by reporter Tom Kocal of Prairie Advocate News. I ended up sitting next to Tom during the afternoon session. He videotaped the public comments and I’m looking forward to his further reporting on the meeting. Jerry Naughton also attended the meeting and wrote a great blog post about it on his brother Tom Naughton’s website. (Tom Naughton made the movie “FatHead” and they are both low-carb advocates, as well as minimal government advocates.)
The meeting was fascinating. More than 120 people, all raw milk supporters, were crowded into a conference room at the Illinois Corn Growers Association building to witness the proceedings. I could tell just from listening to the crowd reaction that everyone was as passionate and well-educated on the topic of raw milk as I am; it was amazing to be in a room with so many people who agree with me! The energetic and enthusiastic crowd was an extraordinarily important part of the proceedings; their vocal support for the raw milk farmers, and their vocal disapproval of the bureaucrats obviously had an effect on both. The committee members sat at tables arranged in a large semi-circle at the front of the room. The anti-raw milk bureaucrats sat on one side, the raw milk farmers and consumers on the other. For the portion of the morning meeting that I attended (1 hour, 11:30 am – 12:30 pm) the bureaucrats were largely silent. The raw milk farmers did much of the talking as information was presented on PowerPoint slides.
The farmers were impressive in their breadth of knowledge about raw milk, and in their willingness as well to continuously (and respectfully) challenge the Illinois Department of Public Health officials, Molly Lamb and Steve Devincenzo, who were running the meeting. Molly was the main facilitator and did most of the talking. She also interrupted raw milk farmers frequently, according to her, for time reasons; “Let’s move this forward” was a phrase she used frequently when a farmer was talking about something that she obviously disagreed with. It was also easy to see that she was surprised and intimidated by the large and emotionally engaged crowd, which often reacted negatively (but respectfully) to her remarks. The farmers challenged her on just about everything on the PowerPoint, in the proposed regulations, and her personal statements as well. She made comments occasionally to the effect of “let’s all work together,” to which Donna O’Shaughnessy (raw milk farmer) made the excellent point that the farmers were leery of working with the IDPH since the IDPH had not acted in a trustworthy manner, and Donna proceeded to provide a detailed description of how the IDPH had acted secretively, had made deceptive statements, and had not included a fair number of raw milk farmers on the original committee.
I mentioned in my previous blog post that Donna had a conversation with Molly earlier this year in which Molly claimed that she had not included a lot of raw milk farmers or consumers on the original committee because she didn’t know how to contact them. I assumed on reading this that Molly was some sort of technophobe who didn’t know how to use the internet. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when Molly commented proudly during the meeting that she did know how to use the internet, because she had been using it to check out a lot of the advertising for raw milk farms in Illinois.
This admission came during the discussion on the advertising prohibition that is supposed to be part of the current regulations. There was considerable confusion here because Donna said she had made several attempts to find out about this prohibition, including contacting several state officials, none of whom could confirm the prohibition. Donna said she began advertising in part to elicit some sort of response from the state, but nothing happened. Steve commented that yes, that prohibition is part of current regulations, and it is a public health issue; the reason for it was to minimize potential exposure to pathogens (in other words, raw milk is disease-laden swill, and we’re trying to keep you from selling a lot of it). Steve didn’t speak very often, but at least when he did, he clearly expressed IDPH’s opinion that raw milk is dangerous; for a bureaucrat, he was pretty plain-spoken. Molly did a lot more talking around the obvious intent of the proposed regulations (eliminating raw milk sales), framing it as a public safety issue, fooling exactly no one in the crowd. Neither she nor Steve had a substantive response to farmer Kelly Boge who commented that pasteurized milk has sickened people and it is still advertised. The bureaucrats did concede that attempting to actually enforce the advertising prohibition would be a “daunting task” and they seemed to believe it would not be worthwhile.
Where the farmers really shone was in the discussion about testing for pathogens. No farmer was against it, and those that spoke had their own intelligent and well-informed comments about testing and earnest questions about how it would be conducted. One farmer clearly stated “Third party testing is important.” I believe the farmers’ main concern was that if only the state conducted the testing, then that testing could easily be skewed against raw milk. Farmer Bill Scheffler pointed out that raw milk has a lot of protective factors and that “we need to expand our definition of safe.”
The morning meeting concluded with Donna emphasizing the necessity for both the IDPH and the farmers to be using the same source for disease and outbreak statistics, otherwise they can’t have any productive discussions regarding safety.
The meeting adjourned briefly for lunch, and at Jim Fraley’s (of the Illinois Farm Bureau) suggestion, was moved to a nearby building with an even larger conference room and more seating, since a few dozen members of the crowd had been standing all morning due to a lack of chairs.
The afternoon meeting mostly consisted of the public comment period, which was only a half hour long. In my previous blog post, I urged my Illinois readers to contact Molly and let her know about their support of raw milk. I myself e-mailed my state representative and senator as well as Molly. I also posted a written comment on the IDPH website the day before the meeting. When I arrived at the afternoon meeting, Molly said that they would only allow public comments from people who had submitted written comments on the website, and people would be called in the order the comments were received. Fourteen people spoke, all enthusiastically in favor of raw milk.
My gut told me I was going to get called, but my brain said, nah, I just submitted my comment yesterday! My gut was right; after thirteen other speakers, including farmers, a mother, a medical doctor, two attorneys, a professional clarinetist, a preacher, and a retired Indiana public health official, my name was called – I was the last speaker. I had to go up and provide my comment without preparation. I was nervous and I hope that didn’t show up too badly in my remarks. I did hit the main points I had thought about making. I said that I am a military veteran, and I worked several years of rotating shift work while in the military, which destroyed my metabolism. Raw milk was one of the few foods I could eat when I couldn’t digest protein or fat well, it helped heal my gut, and I still consume it daily. The FDA was originally established to prevent fraud; these farmers are not committing fraud. The government has no right to stand between me and my food choices.
So yeah, not bad, but I didn’t hit some of the really good points I could have made. So here’s what I would have liked to say in addition to the above:
“I served active duty enlisted in the Navy for thirteen years as a Russian translator. This was an intellectually demanding job that required excellent judgment and a top secret security clearance. My government placed considerable trust in me in having me stand watch against attack, and also entrusted me with access to some of our country’s most sensitive national security secrets. That same government is now telling me that I am too stupid to safely choose my own food! My food rights are not being eroded by Russians or terrorists. I am losing my food rights to well-meaning American government officials uttering the dreaded words ‘We’re from the government, and we’re here to help.’ The public health and safety arguments are just another way of saying ‘We think you are too stupid to make wise food decisions, so we will make them for you by force of law.’ I am perfectly capable of choosing which foods I need to eat and I neither need nor want the government’s help, especially in the form of restrictive laws. The FDA and other food regulatory bodies were never intended to wrap an impenetrable bubble of safety around a public that they now presume to be weak-minded and ignorant. I respectfully suggest that the FDA and IDPH restrict their regulatory actions to combating fraud, and allow honest farmers and consumers to transact privately with each other without fear of government harassment.”
I got the impression as the meeting went on that the bureaucrats were starting to understand that they could not just bulldoze their own rules into being, and that raw milk is a food that many people want to consume and desire ready access to. I know the bureaucrats found out that raw milk consumers are a vocal and well-educated group that cannot be easily swayed by government authority, pandered to with blather about public safety, or bullied into just getting along. I left that meeting hopeful that the bureaucrats would retain what they had learned and would work openly and honestly with the raw milk committee, as taxpayer-funded officials are supposed to do. I even entertained the hope that the original intent of the raw milk supporters to keep the current regulations in place may not have been ambitious enough. I believe there is real potential in this process for new Illinois raw milk regulations to be written that are supportive of small farmers and would promote access to raw milk and public education about its health benefits.