The buses left Rubicon before dawn. It was a drizzly, black morning with no moonlight to illuminate the remnants of snow stretching across the fields. Some of the riders had left their homes more than an hour earlier to arrive for our 5:15 meeting time.
We were beginning what would be a four hour bus ride to Eau Claire for a Wisconsin Legislative Hearing. Topic: the sale of raw (unpasteurized) milk on farms.
The testimony began at 10 AM with an explanation of the bill by its sponsors, followed by a counter-opinion from Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). The sponsors emphasized the value of free (informed) choice and the detractors focused on the inability to ensure the safety of raw milk.
This was followed by public testimony from (literally) hundreds of people who had registered to speak. Notable comments included:
- Testimony from Dr Ted Beals, a retired pathologist from Michigan, who noted that although many of the quoted stats on milk dangers are valid, that raw milk is a fundamentally different product due to different farm management practices. If a farmer is selling raw milk to people they know by name, a higher level of care seems to arise (though some farms pasteurizing may also do well) and contamination is typically significantly lower.
- A college student told of her two brothers who had contracted campylobacter. When this was investigated, they had every risk factor, but the investigator dismissively said it would be attributed to raw milk. The speaker added that the whole family had consumed the milk, but only the affected brothers had been playing in the river—a risk factor that was ignored.
- A French woman who mentioned that raw milk can be obtained readily in Europe (including vending machines) but that it is considered an artisan product, not suitable for corporate production
- Comments that we accept a level of risk in many activities (smoking, drinking, prescription drugs), so why aren’t we allowed to do so with raw milk.
- Tales from farmers whose income had been devastated by orders to stop selling raw milk.
Saddest were the stories from people who felt their health had been improved by raw milk—which they were now unable to get. Most urgent, the formerly solvent farmers who had lost both milk sales and the milk traffic that had led to revenue from other items like eggs and meat (“I might as well put out a sale sign tomorrow”). Most frightening, the notion that state agencies may be willfully stacking the deck in favor of corporate interests.
One of the senators mapped the participants and found they stretched over the full reaches of the state—the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel’s count was 450. The senators there were inquisitive and even kind, with an amazing stamina that left them engaged and responsive after more than nine hours of testimony.
We left after 7 PM; it would be past midnight when I got home. The meeting was still going on as we rode into the night. Our driver announced that a fog had blown in. Perhaps it suited my mood–hopeful but wary, tired but grateful so many had come, saddened that we needed to be here in the first place.
Freedom is not free they say.