-- by David E. Gumpert
Raw milk was big news in the national media just before Christmas.
Big news as in not good news for those who believe people should be able to decide for themselves which foods they'll consume. The fact that there was so much news about raw milk in a row involved some curious coincidences concerning a government agency, a major physician organization, and the nation's major media. And it all happened right before state legislatures began new sessions this month, with many due to consider legislation to liberalize access to raw milk.
First came a study of food-borne illnesses in Minnesota funded in part by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), asserting that raw milk was likely responsible for more illnesses -- 20,000-plus rather than the 21 officially reported during the decade 2001-2010. The authors looked at 530 cases of people who experienced some illness and said they had consumed raw milk and extrapolated that to claim that nearly 37 times as many people became ill. That huge extrapolation also obscures the fact that the writers acknowledged that half of the 500 some patients had direct contact with cattle, which could have been the cause rather than consumption of milk. Plus, the study provided readers with no context to compare the rates of common illness they attempt to attribute to raw milk versus how many more people (without extrapolation) become ill from the same kinds of bacteria from consuming chicken and beef as food.
Nevertheless, the study's authors concluded by urging that the findings be used for the "education of ... policymakers who might be asked by constituents to relax regulations regarding raw milk sales."
That report was "embargoed" for release on December 11, and shortly thereafter, mainstream media science reporters had in their hands a press release from the 60,000-member American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on raw milk. It was "embargoed" until December 16, the following Monday.
Not only should raw milk not be fed to pregnant women and children, said the AAP statement, but it should be banned for sale in the United States. Physicians were similarly "encouraged to advocate for more restrictive laws regarding the sale and distribution of raw milk and raw dairy products," according to the release.
Among the many media reports about the Minnesota study -- from the Los Angeles Times to NBC News and Fox News -- one from USA Today on December 12 began with an "Editor's Note" correcting a version of the article published a day earlier, which made reference to a 2008 AAP article addressed to parents, advising them not to feed children unpasteurized milk or juice. The USA Today reporter had interpreted that article as reflective of AAP policy, and said as much.
The AAP reacted nearly immediately, according to the reporter, Kim Painter: "The next morning, I was contacted by the AAP press office and asked if I could change the text to indicate that the item linked to was a parents' news article, not a policy statement, and that the first policy statement would be issued the next week. After consulting with editors, I did change the text and add a correction."
The next day, December 12, her revised article appeared, with the correction I mentioned: "the group's policy statement on raw milk next week will be its first on the issue."
Why would the AAP be so concerned about whether its December 2013 "official policy statement" be perceived as its first on raw milk? Its PR people likely figured, quite correctly, that news organizations were less inclined to want to update a five-year-old policy than to report on a brand new policy.
Having covered battles around the country over raw milk during the last six years, I thought the physicians' group's position sounded familiar. And sure enough, I discovered a 2008 article in the AAP's official publication, AAP News, "the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics," with the title, "Advise Parents Against Giving Children Unpasteurized Milk." It was co-authored by two AAP scientists and a clinical epidemiologist at the CDC.
I also sought comment from the AAP and was put in contact with one of the authors of the academy's supposedly new policy statement on raw milk, Dr. Jatlinder Bhatia, who said the December 16 press release about a new policy statement wasn't entirely new. "AAP reaffirms or retires statements every five years; the (new) statement reiterates and updates," he said.
Bottom line: despite the AAP's protestations to USA Today, its newly-issued recommendations against raw milk for children and pregnant women were very much a warmed-over version of the 2008 recommendations, as Painter initially portrayed them.
Why does all this matter? For three reasons:
First, it is more than reasonable to question whether the CDC and the AAP were working in lockstep to slam raw milk to affect legislation in the states. While Dr. Bhatia denied that the two organizations "coordinated" their respective releases, they do have a deep and well-established working relationship. A CDC scientist not only helped author the AAP's official 2008 warning about raw milk, but the two organizations cooperate regularly.
Second, by taking such politically confrontational positions to restrict raw milk, the CDC and the AAP were effectively, and ironically, working against expanding efforts to improve raw milk safety. By encouraging more restriction, the organizations were in effect pushing for more raw milk to be sold via underground, unregulated, and arguably less safe channels than if it were regulated.
Third, by mixing science and politics, whether they actually coordinated or not, the two organizations risked eroding their credibility with increasingly skeptical consumers. Indeed, the nation's largest raw milk dairy, Organic Pastures Dairy Co. in California, reported its best sales ever in the week after the two reports came out, according to Mark McAfee, the owner. He had been awaiting the results "with trepidation."
If nothing else, the double slam of raw milk signaled ongoing official resistance to entertaining the initiatives for compromise and accommodation that have been building among food rights advocates.
David E. Gumpert writes The Complete Patient blog and is author of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights.