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The raw story

Drinkers of unprocessed milk don’t want the government to put them out to pasture

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / May 7, 2010

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A small, feisty band of well-connected health nuts are battling the state for the right to buy raw milk from local farms, and for the moment they are losing. It’s just the kind of flap I like: a vast, bovine state and federal bureaucracy in unequal combat with a ragtag militia of udderly committed back-to-nature types.

Civil liberties lawyer Harvey Schwartz, who lives in Ipswich and has defended white supremacists and beleaguered Bay State tattoo artists, has been drinking raw milk for two years, and plans to defend his right to quaff the non-homogenized, unpasteurized white stuff. “It tastes so good, it’s like having ice cream for breakfast,’’ Schwartz says, adding that freedom to buy raw milk is “a great issue — it unites the Green Party and the Tea Party.’’

A recap: It is legal in Massachusetts to buy raw milk at a farm but not in a store. However, the federal Food and Drug Administration and the state’s Department of Public Health discourage raw milk consumption, because pasteurization removes potentially harmful bacteria, such as listeria and salmonella. A few years ago, a top FDA official likened drinking raw milk to “playing Russian roulette with your health,’’ a catch phrase since parroted by the National Dairy Council, Oprah-genic Dr. Mehmet Oz, and many others.

“We don’t want people to think this is a safe product to consume,’’ says Suzanne Condon, a DPH executive. “Sixty-eight percent of all dairy-related, food-borne outbreaks relate to raw milk consumption.’’ Earlier this year, one of her subordinates sent a letter to the state Department of Agricultural Resources alerting it to the existence of “buying clubs,’’ large groups of raw milkies who circumvented the buy-at-the-farm rule by arranging for deliveries to consumers who don’t live near farms. The MDAR promptly sent cease-and-desist letters to four clubs, stirring up a hornet’s nest.

A group of aggrieved milkies, led by Cambridge’s Abby Rockefeller, a longtime activist for composting toilets (“the queen of sludge,’’ the Globe once called her), stormed into MDAR commissioner Scott Soares’s office two weeks ago, demanding answers. Soares’s position is that while MDAR supports the production of raw milk, he had to start enforcing the ban that prohibits retail distribution away from the farm. “These are just proposed changes,’’ he says, awaiting a formal rulemaking.

Why now? The “cowpoolers’’ have been operating for a few years, with no hassles. “We were encouraged by dairy inspectors to set up the buying clubs,’’ says Sean Stanton, a farmer in Great Barrington. “It’s pretty clear that this crackdown is coming from the public health people. Scott didn’t wake up one morning and say, Actually, I don’t think this is a good idea.’’

Others detect the extended hoof of Big Moo: “The conventional dairy industry may be feeling some of the effects of the growing popularity of raw milk as part of the demand for locally produced, unprocessed foods,’’ says Needham’s David Gumpert, author of “The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Struggle Over Food Rights.’’

Got a beef? Show up at the MDAR hearing Monday at 10 a.m. at 100 Cambridge St.

Row your boat
One of my tiresome habits, when driving over a bridge or alongside any body of water, is to ask, ‘I wonder what the rowing scene is like down there? So I had to ask Bruce Smith, executive director of Brighton’s Community Rowing club, What’s the rowing scene like . . . in Iraq?

Smith, a world-class rowing coach, just returned from a five-day trip to Lake Doka, north of Baghdad, where he and fellow coach Bill Engeman organized an elite rowing camp for would-be Iraqi Olympians. At the lake, Smith and Engeman coached about 22 men — Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis — using five Chinese-made single sculls. The State Department didn’t want the Americans coaching in Baghdad, where some crews row on the Tigris River. “It can be dangerous,’’ Smith says. “When a car bomb goes off they can’t get to practice.’’

Why did he go? “I’m drawn to this sport because it has such a positive impact on people,’’ Smith explains. “I had been thinking a lot about Iraq, and how we paid so much in blood and treasure for outcomes that are so tenuous. I wondered if there was anything I could do. When Bill suggested we go over, I thought, It’s just a teaspoon to a house fire, but I have only a teaspoon, so I’m going to try it.’’

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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