I just finished reading The Raw Milk Revolution, by David E. Gumpert (full title: The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America's Emerging Battle Over Food Rights). I recommend it to anyone who is interested in raw milk; in the viability of small-scale farming in the US today; and, most broadly, in the balance between individual rights on the one hand, and the state's role in protecting public health on the other—civil liberties, really.
Gumpert tells the stories of a few specific clashes of raw milk producers with regulatory agencies, and of a few specific pieces of legislation. By shifting his focus among these cases with excellent dramatic timing, he has given his book a bit of the flavor of an episode of Law and Order, leaving us on the edge of our seats as he switches from one thread to the next. Thus he has succeeded in writing an engaging, almost titillating, book about raw milk practice and policy.
His bias, which he makes no effort to hide, is in favor of due process and Constitutionally-guaranteed individual liberties, and against overreaching government agencies, unaccountable bureaucrats, and thug-like police and federal agents. Although he believes, for political and philosophical reasons, that people should have access to raw milk, he remains even-handed in his reporting; he is able to explore the actions, motivations, and inconsistencies of both camps, which is why his book is a valuable document, and not a screed.
He makes many astute observations over the course of the book. The first is one I've made before: that personal accounts of the effects of food on health are often discounted as being anecdotal, but in fact can be more revealing and meaningful than scientific studies. For instance, if someone tells me that they used to have asthma, and that when they started drinking raw milk it went away, and that whenever they stop drinking raw milk it comes back, this might mean more to me than a study of rates of asthma and raw milk consumption over time in a large population, where I gain little or no information about who exactly had asthma and who drank raw milk.
Another observation he made was of the profoundly different ways that different people look at health, illness, food, treatment, and pharmaceuticals. In the below excerpt, he is interviewing a California regulator, on the condition of anonymity:
[His question to the regulator:] What about the studies indicating that children who consume raw milk have fewer chronic health problems, such as the recent major European study suggesting that raw milk reduces the incidence of asthma in children? The response: "Isn't it better to go to your doctor and get asthma medicine than to take the risk of drinking raw milk?"It is hard to know how to span the gulf between people who seek the keys to health on the one hand, and people who would always rather seek treatment on the other.
The tension that lies at the root of the raw milk debate, and indeed at the root of many debates these days, is the following: In the absence of conclusive, overwhelming evidence one way or the other, should the default stance of government be to permit, or to prohibit? On this question, I am quite clear where I stand.