Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Book Review: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights: The Escalating Battle Over Who Decides What We Eat is a new book by David Gumpert that will be out on July 4. I have a hunch that it will immediately have a very loyal following among the Weston A. Price crowd.

Gumpert's last book, Raw Milk Revolution, was about raw milk. This new one is about the larger issue of "food rights," no doubt a completely foreign concept to some people. But anyone trying to legally procure and drink raw milk, unless they own their own cow or goat, will understand completely.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights is essentially still all about raw milk, although the issue's a bit wider than that. And it's not framed as a battle solely over raw milk - it just happens that raw milk is the government's favorite thing to crack down on so the fight is usually about raw milk.

The basic issue of the book is "is there such a thing as private food." If you own a cow or a goat, you milk her, you get to drink the milk. If you own a shopping center and anyone from the public can come in and buy food, then you're subject to all of the federal, state, and local rules concerning sanitation, licenses, etc. In many states that means you can't sell raw milk. But what about alternative, private arrangements?

Several private arrangements are detailed in the book. There's the cowshare or herdshare, in which people buy a share of the cow instead of buying the milk. Then they receive milk as their dividends from owning the share of the cow. Often a per-volume fee for the milk is paid to cover the labor of maintaining and milking the animal, not for the milk itself.

Then there are leasing agreements that work like this. Farmer John owns 10 cows. You, me, and 50 friends come together and lease the 10 cows. Then we pay Farmer John for the room and board of his 10 cows that we've leased. We also pay him for the labor of maintaining and milking the animals, but we get the milk because we've leased the cows. Again, labor and overhead fees are often paid based on the volume of milk each person receives.

And related to such arrangements are private buying clubs. These are clubs that often start out with a few members who want a certain type of food and cannot get it within convenient driving distance. In the book, there's a DC-area group purchasing from an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania. The folks from DC can't conveniently each drive to the PA farm once a week to pick up their food. Instead, members of a buying club will take turns driving to pick up the food for everyone or they will hire a truck to make deliveries.

Because of the Commerce Clause of the constitution, the federal government can regulate interstate commerce but not commerce within a state. So the federal government says no selling raw milk across state lines, but each individual state has different laws for raw milk. And if your state bans raw milk sales and you want it, you either need to get your own cow or goat, move to a different state, or go to another state to buy milk on a regular basis. And if none of that works for you, then you can set up a buying club and try your luck, as many people have done.

The ultimate question is: Are these private arrangements, in which members often pay membership fees or have some ownership share in the cow, the same - legally - as regular supermarkets. Are they subject to the same rules? And should they be?

Reading the book, which focuses on a handful of different farmers, buying clubs, and their tangles with the law, one comes away with a few different reactions.

First of all, why the hell is the government so intensely focused on a small minority of citizens who want to drink raw milk from farmers they know personally and often from farms they've visited themselves?

Second, why do citizens need to go through such stupid legal gymnastics just to attempt to obtain healthful food?

As we all know, there are real, big, widespread problems in our food supply. There are any number of foods - mostly ones that can be obtained through a drive-thru or a vending machine - that make you sick 100% of the time, even when they aren't contaminated with pathogens. And then there are factory farms that are breeding grounds for pathogens, and slaughterhouses run in ways that virtually ensure that sooner or later, somebody's going to eat some tainted meat, and we can only hope they cook it thoroughly first. The government's focus on the raw milk issue is kind of like their focus on arresting potheads while meanwhile there are rapists on the loose.

What I feel is a weak point of this book is that the individuals that the story is told through are often - and there is no other word for this - weird. Like a guy who legally changed his name to Aajonus Vonderplanitz who eats a diet including large amounts of raw meat.

Of course, in this country, if you want to be weird, you get to be weird. Just so long as you don't hurt anybody else. And if you want to eat weird food, you get to do that too. Or at least, you can so long as you don't want to include raw milk in your diet. Atkins, paleo, South Beach, processed artificial god knows what, all of that's okay, just as long as you don't want to buy raw milk in a state that says you can't. So says the government.

That said, some of the characters are hardly sympathetic. There are some folks profiled in the book who do come across as normal, responsible, well-informed, etc. It's a lot easier to identify with them, and a lot harder to dismiss them.

Perhaps the weirdos come into the story because they are the only ones willing to take on the system so brazenly. (And Vonderplanitz in particular generally thinks that he's got a better understanding of the law than most lawyers, so he's got no fear in, well... he doesn't see it as breaking the law.)

As a journalist, is it Gumpert's job to tell the story as it is, profiling weirdos if weirdos are part of the story? Or as an advocate for food freedom, which I think it's safe to say that he is, is it his place to frame his story in an advantageous light by telling it through characters that readers will better identify with?

The idea of food freedom is important, and it extends beyond raw milk. Other foods mentioned in the book include kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, and raw milk cheeses, to name a few. In my own experience, I've met a local artisanal salumi company (now out of business) that was operating under USDA inspections but continually harassed for refusing to use nitrates in their meat. They told me they would present the evidence again and again to the government, proving scientifically how they used moisture levels and salt content to prevent microbial growth without nitrates. The government would take the information, and then come back insisting once again that they use nitrates.

Gumpert shies away from explaining why these contraband foods are safe, healthy, and should be legal. In this book, he sticks to focusing on whether or not we have a right to eat what we want, period. Nevermind how and why. I think the how and why are important and worth delving into to help people understand why it is that the government's being unjust.

Want to know why unwashed eggs don't need to be refrigerated? There's a good explanation for that. And it makes the government look all the more stupid for insisting that eggs for sale must be washed and refrigerated. Especially if the eggs come from a small farm raising pastured chickens, selling to a small group of people who know the farmer personally.

My other quibble with this book was its profiling of Bill Marler, a well-known food safety lawyer. (Full disclosure: I have written for Marler and been paid for my work.) I've met Marler and I like him. I think he's acting in good faith. I don't think many of the regulators are acting in good faith, but I think Marler is. In his job as a food safety lawyer, he sees an awful lot of devastated families and victims of food poisoning. I believe he genuinely cares about them.

Marler and I disagree about raw milk, but we can rationally debate it. Not so with many regulators. (If you look through the government's database of foodborne illness cases, you'll see that one food only is listed in all caps - RAW MILK. You'll also see that most food poisoning cases are never resolved, and some are only linked generally to something like "tacos" without discovering whether it was the meat, the cheese, the salsa, or the lettuce that made the person ill. Their obsession with pointing the finger at raw milk seems paranoid and totalitarian.)

I know David Gumpert took care in writing the section on Marler, but I still felt like it made him come off a bit too much like an ambulance chaser who is after a paycheck. And while Marler's a master of using the internet and various other gimmicks to get his point across (like sending T-shirts to the entire U.S. Senate advocating passage of a food safety bill), I think his goal is justice for the victims he represents and a safer food system. I think he doesn't want to see another family lose a loved one to tainted food.

That said, I think while the Gumpert book is by no means perfect, it highlights an important issue and inspires readers to feel angry and perhaps even take action.

I've always felt that the raw milk issue can be split into two parts: the right of citizens to eat what they want, and the right of citizens to be protected from fraudulent business people who are potentially selling dangerous products. Should you have the right to drink raw milk? Absolutely! Should I have the right to operate a filthy dairy with 50,000 cows up to their udders in manure and distribute their milk across the country under the guise that it is safe and sanitary and even healthful? Nope.

I don't know exactly where the line between those two extremes is drawn, but Gumpert's book and even personal experience make it clear that the government definitely draws it in the wrong spot. Cracking down on dairies that have never made anyone sick, forcing them to throw out their raw milk and not even allowing them to feed the milk to their pigs, or refusing to allow the sale of raw milk if it tests free of pathogens is ridiculous. Conducting sting operations of private buying clubs that have never sickened anyone makes words like "authoritarian" come to mind.

Gumpert doesn't go there, but there is another side to this issue. Why is the government acting like this? GRAIN has a piece called the Great Milk Robbery about a move around the world to promote the capture of more of the dairy market by large conglomerates.

A small farmer selling raw milk, collecting 100% of the retail dollar for that raw milk, denies a megacorporation like Dean Foods the opportunity to profit off of that milk. For the most part, individual small farmers do not have their own dairy processing plants and they cannot legally sell fluid milk or any other "value added" dairy products like yogurt, cheese, or ice cream. They sell their milk to a processor for a pittance and the processor and the rest of the distribution chain cash in on most of the retail price paid for the milk or other dairy products.

Laws made in the name of "food safety" can be important in keeping food safe, but they also serve to keep little guys out of the market. I can't make small batches of sauerkraut in a crock at home and sell it at the farmers' market. I would need to use a commercial kitchen to do that. (Note: CA has a new Cottage Foods law that I could potentially use to produce "low risk" foods at home and sell them.) Locally, friends have avoided such laws by holding "food swaps." I can show up with a dozen jars of kraut and swap them for homemade jam, tomato sauce, etc, with no cash exchanged.

Food safety is important, but we have to question this unintended consequence of restricting the market to the big players in the name of food safety. In the case of raw milk, is the government crackdown entirely due to regulators' insanely distorted view that raw milk is the main food safety problem facing America today, or is it something more sinister related to protecting the market share of large dairy processors? Gumpert's book doesn't go there, but the question has to be asked.

One last comment - I also just read Milk: The Surprising History of Milk Through the Ages by Anne Mendelson, which I highly recommend, in addition to the new Gumpert book. That book shows how unsatisfactory the average supermarket milk options actually are, which increases the importance of allowing eaters to access better options directly from farmers if we wish to do so. The demand for raw milk and other value added dairy products not sold in mainstream supermarkets or other channels definitely shows the failure of the market to meet consumer demand.

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