An Interview with David Gumpert

by Rebecca Briggs

David Gumpert’s new book, The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights, goes behind the scenes of state governments’ crackdowns on raw milk producers. Gumpert is a journalist who specializes in the intersection of health and business. He has covered the battles over raw milk on his blog, Gumpert has emerged recently as an important voice in the areas of raw milk and food rights.

The key concept that you bring up right in your title is that raw milk is an issue of food rights. Would you go so far as to say that this is really a civil rights issue?

I’d say it certainly is a lot like a civil rights issue. I guess you could call it a civil rights issue. That’s interesting, I hadn’t really thought of it. I mean, it’s an issue that’s so fundamental that the framers of the Constitution didn’t even think to mention it because there was no issue in those days about food rights. They had a lot of other rights issues — about rights against self-incrimination and the rights to assembly and right to free speech and freedom of religion. So they didn’t think to write about that.

But it’s been turned into a civil rights issue by our own governmental authorities. I mean, they are very gradually forcing more and more foods to be processed in different ways — and foods that growing numbers of people want to be able to consume unprocessed. This includes things like apple cider and vegetable juice and almonds, and now it’s beginning to include meats and leafy greens that might be irradiated. Eventually it could be meats that are cloned, genetically modified food, and, to the extent that those kind of processes become common place, it becomes difficult or impossible to get the original unprocessed food.

So I’d say it is a civil right.

And so milk is really representative?

Yes, I call it a proxy issue. Milk is, I’d say, out there because there are specific laws against it that people are becoming aware of as they decide that maybe pasteurized milk isn’t so great and because maybe the processing damages the milk and makes it less nutritionally beneficial or in various ways alters it so that it’s not easily digested, or whatever. Then the raw milk becomes more desirable to more people, and what people are finding is what I talk about with these other foods. You go to the store in most places in the country and you cannot find raw milk in the store. So you have to make all these special arrangements, and in about twenty states it’s illegal to sell raw milk at all. So that’s the kind of dilemma that people are facing.

It seems like these laws were originally based on health concerns of a prior era (from a time of very unsanitary conditions and milk production). But why do you think they are continuing?

Well, it’s becoming a bigger issue because people are becoming more aware of the food that they eat and where it comes from and what kinds of nutritional qualities does it have. I think that for a long time we believed in this country that, you know, food is food is food, and that’s not necessarily the case. People are becoming aware that food does differ and does vary and that some foods, in the same category, may be more nutritious based on the fact that they’re locally produced or how the animals are fed or how the vegetables are grown and fertilized and what kind of soil they grow in. So they’re generally finding that foods that are locally grown and organically grown are often more nutritious and they taste better. So there’s a growing awareness of the various qualities of food.

Also, people are becoming more and more aware of the dangers of processed food, that we have this epidemic of chronic disease — diabetes and Crohn’s and asthma and things like that that are just exploding. And more people are making the connection between processed foods and these chronic diseases and obesity.

So there’s just a growing amount of awareness and more and more people are seeking out unprocessed foods, locally grown. They want to know how the animals are raised, where the meat comes from. That works against things like pasteurized milk and factory-produced eggs and factory-produced chickens and all of that sort of thing.

Could it also, though — for some people, anyway — work in favor of more state regulation in the sense that they don’t really know where their food is coming from and they don’t trust it and want the state to come in and make more promises and put more regulation on?

Well, certainly the public health communities and the big ag communities are taking that approach, and they are trying to use the concerns about food to push what they call food safety. In fact, you may be aware there’s food safety legislation pending right now in Congress that could have pretty major impact on access to locally grown food [House Bill 2749 and Senate Bill 510].

What’s happening is the government is doing exactly what you suggest: they’re saying, well, you know, people are more concerned about where their food comes from and so we want to ensure safety and we’ve seen some highly publicized recalls of food and we want to enact more controls so we can trace our food back, so we can tell farmers what practices to use, we can do more inspections, we can have all kinds of powers over the food. But what this really is doing, at the same time, will limit our access to food because it’ll put huge burdens that didn’t exist before onto small or local growers, or small or local producers of food.

That’s a whole other subject, but it’s related in a sense. I mean, just as an example, it will allow the FDA to make decisions about what scientific processes should be standards. So one of those processes could be pasteurization. Or it could be irradiation. And they could say, “That’s a process that we think should be a scientific standard.” And so under that legislation they could just decide to do that. And then they could require that all milk be pasteurized and all meats be irradiated.

So it’s pretty far reaching. It sets a requirement that all food be produced under what are known as “good agricultural practices.” And “good agricultural practices” haven’t been fully defined. It’s a United Nations term. It’s used in under-developed countries to set standards for irrigation and crop rotation and fertilization, things like that. That’s something that farmers do themselves; that’s not something where they want the government telling them what to do.

Is there a balance there? I’m wondering if we’re too obsessed about food safety now, if there’s some sort of balance where the state should stay involved but not in the way that it is?

Yes, I think there’s a lot less known about food-borne illness than we think. I think we need to learn more, and there certainly is room for improvement in food safety. I mean, there are outbreaks of food-borne illness, no question about it. And it tends to come from larger companies, and it seems to breed in the feedlot-type operations where animals are crowded together and there’s not good sanitation.

Yes, there is room for improvement. I think what they’re doing, though, is kind of taking a sledgehammer approach and saying, “OK, everyone’s going to have to abide by these draconian measures,” and not leaving any flexibility for the smaller producers.

Do you think in some ways that connection is not being made within the public health community — the difference between these large agricultural production facilities and the kind of attention that a smaller farmer can pay to, for example, the production of raw milk?

Yes, see, I don’t think they care about the smaller producer. The public health community, all they really care about — I mean, they’ll say all they care about is protection and safety. But also they have their own theories as to how disease spreads, and they’re really geared toward sanitation — or sterilization, as some might say. They find that, to the extent they sterilize the food supply, then there’s less of a problem.

And sterilization isn’t necessarily the answer. I mean, we have sterilized milk — when you pasteurize milk, I mean, you’re close to it — and there are people who can’t drink it. There are problems with lactose intolerance. But they say the unpasteurized is unsafe, and so they want to just ban rather than allowing people to have a choice.

There was a comment made on our Facebook page, which I thought was interesting, from a person who I think was supportive of raw milk in general but was worried about the idea that it would catch on too much and go into our current agricultural distribution model, and she was very worried that this kind of large-scale practice would then cause more health concerns. Do you think that’s a worry, doing larger-scale production and sending it further distances — something very different than, say, the cow share or farm pick-up?

Well, we have an example of that happening in California. We have Organic Pastures Dairy Company, which ships milk up and down the state of California, many hundreds of miles. They did have an outbreak in 2006, but really no problem since then, and they seem to have gotten their act together. They claim to have 50 or 60 thousand people a day consuming their milk. And there really isn’t any problem.

So I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case. I mean, they have us believe that. It sounds good; I mean, it certainly makes some sense.
The only thing I’d say, even if it were true, if that’s the case, then why don’t they allow [alternative arrangements like cow shares], why don’t they encourage that, instead of fighting it every step of the way? I mean, in Wisconsin they’re fighting herd share operations. In others states as well — Maryland, Wyoming, other states that have wanted to do this — the public health community fights it.

Do you see any positive movement? I’m thinking, for example, of all these new raw milk alliance groups that have been forming in different states. It seems like there’s a lot discussion going on now. Do you see that as positive?

Oh yes, I think the discussion is very positive. And I think all the organizing and all the protesting is very positive as well. It’s too bad that it has to happen, but it’s happening for a reason. It seems pretty clear that the public health communities, the medical communities, are going to fight a broadening of availability of raw milk. It does have to be a fight, unfortunately.

It seems at least now this is getting it out there, and people are becoming aware that it’s even something to be considered.

Yes, exactly, and I think that’s a good thing because people start to ask questions and they start to educate themselves. No one’s suggesting that we do away with pasteurization. And no one’s suggesting that we say all milk should be unpasteurized. Nothing even remotely resembling that is being proposed. All that growing numbers of people are saying is that we want the choice. We want to be able to make that choice ourselves, we want to be able to decide how much risk we assume ourselves, and we want access to unpasteurized milk. But don’t do away with pasteurized milk by any means.

In this emerging battle and discussion, what do you think are the most potentially convincing arguments? It seems like you can come to it from various angles — like saving small farmers, helping them economically, or the health reasons to drink raw milk, or freedom of choice….

Yes, I would say two of them. I don’t think that the argument should be made on the basis of health, because I think that’s a personal matter. Depending on what research papers you look at and how you skew the statistics, you can make a case that raw milk is healthier or raw milk is the same nutritionally as pasteurized milk. I don’t think that’s a productive argument to have. Because the decision as to whether we have this choice shouldn’t be based on whether raw milk is nutritionally superior or not. Because we have lots of choices about foods that aren’t very nutritious. You know, we have the option to eat potatoes fried or to eat potatoes mashed or to eat potatoes in chips with a lot of oil and a lot of fat. So we can have potatoes fourteen different ways, and that’s just a choice people have. I mean, that’s kind of an assumed right that people have to make those decisions for themselves. But for some reason, for certain foods — like milk, in particular — where people say, “I want to have the option to have it unprocessed,” the powers that be have decided that that’s not a choice we should have.

So I think it’s a matter of rights. I think that’s probably the best way to address it. I mean, we’re not talking about cigarettes here. We’re not talking about narcotics. We’re talking about milk. No one’s suggesting that it’s, you know, addictive or somehow going to give you cancer. Because I think there need to be some limits on things like drugs and tobacco. But in terms of food, the choice thing is one thing.

I think that other part, which you alluded to, is the subject of what I refer to as economic development. I mean, we have lost huge numbers of farms. Between 1960 and now, we’ve lost more than 88% of our dairy farms in the U.S., and we’re still producing very close to the same amount of milk, but we’re doing it with many fewer farms. And what’s happened is they’ve been gradually, intentionally, forced out of business. The small dairy farms have been forced out of business. The reality is that smaller farms create jobs. And we have a real problem in this country: we don’t have enough jobs. Dairies that produce and distribute raw milk do well because they have a different economic model: they can sell directly, they get more money for their product, and so they bypass the middleman. And that’s very attractive from a financial, economic development point of view and from a business point of view for the farmers. But the existing dairy processing industry doesn’t like that. They don’t like milk that bypasses their plants and isn’t paying them money.

So I think those are the two most powerful arguments: the rights and the economic development.

Do you think it’s going to make much difference what kind of legal model is used to create these cow shares? Do you think there might be models that could be more successful, or are they really all going to receive the same kind of backlash?

There’s a couple places where they’ve worked. Michigan had a traumatic experience in 2006-2007 where Richard Hebron, a farmer, was investigated and had his milk confiscated and was almost prosecuted. But since then they’ve sanctioned cow shares, and it seems to be working well. Colorado had a cow share—as far as I’m aware, the only legislated cow share sanctioned situation in the country — and this seems to be working well. So it is possible.
I think it’s a great model in the sense of…I think part of the challenge, part of what people are looking for, is to get outside the established food system.

They want to go to the grocery store as little as possible. And they want to get their food from farmers’ markets or roadside stands or directly from farmers. Now, a lot of people don’t have the time for that because of work. I mean, it takes time to go out to the farm and food. But people are organizing buying groups and cooperatives, such things like that, to get around that so that they limit the amount of driving and trips and time that has to be invested in getting food. The authorities seem to be not reacting well to that trend. That’s something that I think is going to happen more and more despite what they want, but obviously the established food chain, the established food sellers don’t care for that. But that’s the way things are going, and I think it’s going to happen more and more.

Part of the reason this food legislation is pending in Congress is there are international agreements that we’re part of that seek to standardize the whole food process — things like traceability and “good agricultural practices” and so-called food safety. So they want to standardize a lot of these things, and that’s part of why we have this legislation now, so that we stay in conformance with international regulations and World Trade Organization related standards.

But a lot of people don’t want that. They don’t want all their food processed or grown according to how government bureaucrats think it should be grown. And so that’s why you see a lot of protests and that’s why you see people organizing into these buying groups. There’s one in Pennsylvania called CARE. They have over 5,000 members and thirty-five farms supplying different foods, fresh foods, to the people.

So it sounds, from what you’re saying, that this ties in to this whole, much larger debate about how we farm and how we get our food and how we interact as a community.

Absolutely, absolutely. It’s actually an encouraging trend in a lot of ways. I mean, the idea of more community and of encouraging local production of food and keeping economic development. There was a study done in Massachusetts of the impact of raw milk in various communities. It was done by the Northeast Organic Farming Association. They found that it fosters economic growth to have many thousands of dollars circulating in the community, because the money that’s spent on raw milk with the farms goes to buy goods and services locally that keeps money in the community.

What do you see as the most effective way of proceeding in this battle — is that the right word, or revolution? What are the most effective means we have of battling what is really a very large, well-organized, well-funded, well-entrenched opposition?

I think there are a couple things. I think eventually the biggest force that people can bring to bear is the market force. In other words, the more people buy their food outside the system, the more that they encourage the development of these alternative approaches and the more they take away from the factory system. So that’s certainly one thing that people can do, to try to buy more of their food privately and from local producers.

The second thing is that people have to let their legislators know about this stuff, because the public health community consists of a lot of regulators, and their bosses are the legislators. And a lot of legislators are not very well informed about what’s going on here. So the regulators kind of run roughshod — like in the raw milk arena, they run roughshod over the raw milk producers. I talk about a lot of that in my book, things that have happened in New York State and Pennsylvania and Michigan. They won’t do that if the legislators are telling them not to do it or if the legislators are passing laws that restrict what they can do. So I think it’s really important for people to be in touch with their legislators. Like on this whole food safety thing, they’re trying to dress up a lot of their regulatory actions under the rubric of food safety because that sounds more, you know, like mom and apple pie. But they’re only doing that because it sounds better.

But like you suggest, we’re dealing with entrenched interests, and they’re going to resist it every step of the way. One thing that’s happening in a few states nowadays: so-called food freedom acts. There was a big to-do in Wyoming, and now in Florida there’s some legislation pending to allow small producers to sell their food to roadside stands or at farmers’ markets or serve at weddings or parties without having to deal with licensing restrictions and not have to get a retail licensing, which can be very onerous and you have to have all kinds of facilities and labels and wrappings and so on and so forth.

David Gumpert’s book, The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights, is available from Chelsea Green Publishing.

Originally published in Biodynamics Summer 2010.