Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Raw milk: the latest battle line in the war on food

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland, self-described 'statutory, independent and science-based body, dedicated to protecting public health and consumer interests in the area of food safety and hygiene' has recently recommended that the government reinstate a ban on raw, unpasteurized milk, previously rescinded by the EU in 2007. Pasteurization is a process promoted by French chemist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), involving heating milk and rapidly cooling it as a means of slowing microbial growth. It also extends the shelf-life of dairy products, but has been widely adopted due to claims of health benefits, including preventing diseases such as tuberculosis, brucellosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever and Q-fever. 

Though milk contains relatively few bacteria, it is susceptible to contamination from other sources. Anyone who has left a carton of milk open in the fridge overnight will know how readily it absorbs food flavours. In addition, cows can transmit a wide variety of diseases to humans through their milk. However, pasteurization has become a controversial subject, partially due to the fact that, as well as removing dangerous pathogens, it also destroys beneficial enzymes. Furthermore, many campaigners have asked why the public should not be allowed to choose between raw and pasteurized milk. Surely basic health and hygiene precautions would prevent many of the illnesses potentially linked to raw milk?

No, says Dr Wayne Anderson, the FSAI’s Director of Food Science and Standards, referring to studies conducted in Britain which show a decrease in diseases related to raw milk in Scotland following a similar ban there. However, a group including farmers, artisan cheesemakers, restauranteurs and others are campaigning against this proposed ban, claiming that: 

"everyone has a right to choose to drink one of Ireland’s premium products which has a rightfully esteemed place in our food heritage. Informed consumers should have the right to decide for themselves what they eat and drink".

The attack on raw milk has been a high-profile one of late. Rawesome Foods of Venice California, a co-operative movement which supplies raw milk to its dues-paying members, has been raided twice in one year. On August 11, armed federal agents stormed the building, arresting owner James Stewart and leaving humdreds of gallons of raw milk to spoil. Stewart and his colleagues were availing of a legal loophole, entering into a 'herdshare' agreement with farmers, whereby they were paid to feed and milk the co-op's goats. The private nature of the co-operative by-passed regulations prohibiting the sale of raw milk to the public.

Attacks against the freedom of consumers to choose what they buy are nothing new of course. There has been a chilling trend in recent times which suggests that a war is being waged by the food industry, bolstered by government muscle. What is at stake is most basic of human rights - the right to access nourishment, as established by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:

"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food."

In recent years, there has been a concerted campaign to sneak GMO food onto our plates without our knowledge, and to limit the types of health supplements and herbal remedies which we are allowed to consume. Gingko Biloba and St. John's Wort are currently available in Ireland only on prescription, despite there being no evidence that they pose a serious threat to public health. It is a proven fact that prescription medicines are a far great danger to the population. In the U.S., the number of deaths caused by prescription medication dwarfs those that result from traffic accidents.

The mooted ban on raw milk in Ireland constitutes an attack on the fundamental rights of the Irish public to control what we consume.We have to ask, do we want authorities such as Food Safety Authority of Ireland to have autonomy over our health? Are we children who cannot be trusted to make sensible choices about our eating habits (when such choices are provided of course)? Or is this yet another front on which the war against food is being fought - a subtle yet sinister ploy to further minimize out options, reducing our ability to sustain ourselves in the face of increasing corporate control over food supplies?

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