Category Archives: USDA

Raw Milk: The Choices I Make, and Why

Raw milk has risks. It just does. That means it is exactly no different from anything else we ingest, from lettuce to alcohol. I choose to accept these risks,because I know what they are, and I’ve decided that any potential risks from raw milk from a local, well-vetted farm with excellent husbandry and milking practices is still lower than that of drinking conventional milk.

Here’s the deal:

-Not all of us who drink raw milk are uninformed, on jumping on some bandwagon. I’ve done the research. In fact, part of my job is literally to research food illness, benefits, husbandry practices,etc. I didn’t just hear someone says “raw milk is awesome” and decide “hey, I must drink that!” Raw milk isn’t a recent thing for me. I grew up drinking milk warm, directly from the teats of the cows and goats I milked on our farm. We didn’t pasteurize, but we were taught really excellent husbandry and milking practices. And yes, we milked by hand. We weren’t a dairy, we were too poor to have a milking machine, and as kids we were excellent free labor for our parents.

-I trust my local farmers far more than I trust corporate agriculture. I can stop by and visit my cow, help feed, watch the milking, and see what they do with the milk (including the fact that they’re drinking it, the same as we are) anytime I want, without notice. They provide any information I ask, including testing/herd testing information, with appropriate  verification if requested. I didn’t just wander onto some field with a guy milking a cow and say “hey, can I have some of that?”  Which is essentially what I’m doing if I buy food from corporate agriculture. Corporate Ag sickens thousands each year, from eggs to dairy to produces. Do people get sick from local goods? Of course. But, after looking at all the facts, I believe that–for my family–the risks of non-GMO, grass-fed, pastured, unpasteurized cow’s milk is simply far less than trusting a corporate food system we already know is horribly corrupt. I’ve been sick from mass-produced goods. I have never yet been sick from anything I’ve gotten from my local, vetted farmers. I realize that’s anecdotal, and I don’t expect others to make my choices. But *I* should have a right to make an informed decision about what I eat.

-The risks are, from all the data I can collect since the data is fairly sparse, pretty statistically insignificant. I know that when it’s you or a family member, statistics become irrelevant; but, when making reasonable food choices, they can be helpful. Depending who you listen to, between 3 and 10 Million people drink raw milk in the US. There is, from all the data I could find, an average of 100-150 cases of hospitalization a year reported, meaning they were serious enough to be diagnosed and hospitalized. Only 2 recorded deaths since 1998 that I could find (there may be more, I am willing to revise this, so please let me know). This means that reported cases of illness are between .00005% and .00016%. Even assuming there are, say, 100o unreported cases a year, you’re still only looking at well below a 1% chance of getting ill from raw milk.  I’ll live with that.

-Not all of us who drink raw milk espouse Weston A. Price Foundation values. I am not a member. I do believe in whole foods, I do believe in not eating processed sugars or many simple carobhydrates. I do think we get too few CLAs, Omegas, and the like in our diets as Americans overall. That is about where my paradigm similarities with them ends. I don’t have a problem with them. They’re free to make whatever food choices work for them, and I do applaud the fact that most members bother to educate themselves on what they’re eating, which is more than I can say for the vast majority of Americans who choose to eat crap “food.” I just don’t believe everything they do, and their paradigm borders too closely on fanaticism for me, personally. It’s also frequently tied to religion, and I prefer to keep religious issues out of my food choices.

-I don’t think raw milk is magic. Yes, there are many people who’ve got stories about it curing this or that, and maybe it does. Or, maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know, and that’s not why I choose it. I’m healthy, I am not looking for a panacea. I, personally, notice my (very mild) seasonal allergies are non-existent when I am drinking local, raw milk regularly. The same is true of local, raw honey. Is it psychosomatic? Possibly. But, since that’s not why I drink it, I don’t actually care. I drink it because I like the fact that the cow (from my farm) has been fed no corn or GMO feed, that it eats grass and therefore likely has higher levels of good fatty acids, that the milk tastes better to me, has a higher fat content (yes, we do actually look for that–Thadd needs something like 4 thousand calories a day, and we get almost none of them from simple carbs or sugars) , that it actually contains no hormones or antibiotics (as opposed to “allowable” amounts), that it’s only hours old when I get it, that it supports local agriculture, and that I can make cheese and other products from it much more readily than I can from high-heat pasteurized milk.

-I don’t feed it to the world. Thadd and I drink it. I do make my own cheese, and some of those cheeses can only be made with raw milk or, in some cases, low-heat pasteurized milk. Unfortunately, the latter is not available literally anywhere near me, so the former is my best choice, even if I didn’t want to drink it. These products, and the raw milk itself, are used for only ourselves. We have no children, and typically when we have guests over, we’re drinking local wine, cider, beer, or freshly-made lemonade, not big glasses of milk.

-You can know the risks, and still elect to take them. Simply because someone chooses to do something someone else views as “risky” does not mean the chooser isn’t aware of the risks. People who climb Mt. Everest are doing something I would personally never do, but I am pretty sure they’re aware of what they’re getting into. People have many different reasons for choosing what they choose to do, and can look at the same information, and come to a different decision. For some people, any germ associated with food is abhorrent. For me, food without germs is abhorrent. I think, overall, that germ theory has led us in the wrong direction, and is one reason we’re so sick as a nation. (I don’t use hand sanitizer, but I do wash my hands thoroughly. I don’t use bleach to clean my house, but I do clean well with soap and water.)  Of course, germs are not the same as pathogens, and while I realize that pathogens can be present in raw milk, appropriate practices keeps the risk of that very small. Small enough, in fact, that I choose to take it because for me, it’s a smaller risk than the long-term effects of what is in much commercial milk.

-Not all of us believe that raw milk should flow freely like a river down a mountain, unhindered and unregulated. I certainly don’t. I would love it if our government could take a step back from lobbyists who contribute heavily to their campaign funds, and draft real, reasonable regulation that would help ensure the safety of a raw milk supply and the products thereof. It’s not impossible. Other countries have done it well (some so well it can actually be gotten at vending machines, and the instances of illness are reported to be the same as pasteurized). Europe is famous for its fresh, raw milk cheeses. People are not hospitalized or dying in droves from fresh ricotta or aged Roquefort (the latter of which is required, by law, to be made from fresh, raw sheep’s milk). Unfortunately, our government, and many people who seem to speak on either side of this issue, seem to see no middle: it’s either a free-for-all, or a felony.  When really, it should be more along the lines of: here are solid regulations for husbandry, milking, testing, storage, and transport. Follow them, or you will be liable, just like other food companies (oh, wait…other food companies get people sick and hospitalize them all the time with no real consequences). So, until and unless those who do the regulation can get their collective heads out of their collective arses,  it leaves those of us in the middle with a lot of vetting to do on our farms.

Raw milk is not for everyone. There are plenty of instances when pasteurized milk is the better choice. But, there’s no good reason why the choice can’t be offered in a safe way.


Different Ideas about “Quality of Life”

Some of you may know that the Department of Justice has been holding agriculture antitrust workshops over the past year, culminating with the final workshop this past week in Washington, DC. You can catch some of it on C-Span, including what I am writing about here.  I am going to leave aside things from this panel like what farmers make in relation to prices charged for food, and focus on one of the panelists, because listening to his patter you’d think we were living in a Golden Age here in the US.

Erik Leiberman, the panelist representing the Food Marketing Institute for the “Food Chain Supply Competition” portion of the workshops, rattled off some impressive-sounding statistics about how much Americans spend–or rather, don’t spend–on food. Statistics that I decided to check out. Since the FMI is an Corporate Ag entity, I was surprised at how uninformed and unprepared Mr. Lieberman seemed, and I was also surprised at the lack of research that went into his spiel.  Sadly, it seemed like another example of agribusiness not taking concerns seriously. Apparently, a Department of Justice panel wasn’t important enough for them to take time to at least prep their representative on rhetoric and sincerity.  Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, was at the panels:  “I expected to hear an industry shill parrot the corporate line, but this guy couldn’t even be bothered to sound convincing. He kept looking down at his notes to read from his talking points, which didn’t exactly endear him to the already skeptical audience. This was in contrast to others who came better prepared and in the case of actual farmers, spoke from the heart.”

I get that corporation have to make money. We all have to make a living.  Really, though, there should be some expectation of doing it in an ethical, informed, and responsible manner. This would entail knowing what you’re talking about when you speak about your business, especially when you speak in hard numbers. Mr. Lieberman not only lacked empathy or apparently emotional connection to a subject so many at the panels (and around the US) were passionate about, he also either lacked the staff to collect appropriate date or the data itself is intentionally misrepresented. I don’t expect everyone to know every detail about every facet of the business they’re in, especially if it’s a large business and they’re not the CEO; but, I do expect that if they give numbers and make correlations using those numbers that they at least 1) have the right numbers and 2) have some idea what those numbers actually mean.

During the hour-and-a-half panel discussion, Lieberman kept coming back to his assertion that the “True cost of food declined consistently over…many decades. This is despite the USDA’s price index showing steady increases of 2-6% or more a year.  Some items increased even more dramatically: ” In 2007, retail milk prices rose 11.6 percent, and egg prices were up 29.2 percent, while vegetable oil and bread prices are expected to increase 9 percent or more in 2008.” Yet, upon questioning by other members of the panel, Mr. Lieberman continued to insist prices were falling steadily. If I can find these statistics online with a quick google search on the USDA website, I’m not quite sure why Mr. Lieberman couldn’t, too.

He also asserted that US consumers spend only 9% of their disposable (after-tax) family income on food: 5.5% at home, he other 4% eating out (yes, I realize that doesn’t equal 9%).  His statistics directly conflict with government agency statistics regarding how people spend money.  According to the US Department of labor, in 2009, Americans spent 12.99% of their family income on food (7.56% at home, the rest eating out), up from 12% in 2008. According to the USDA, Americans spent 9.9% of their disposable income on food way back in 2005.  Percentage of household income spent on food has actually risen in recent years, not decreased, as have prices.

Another bit of information not mentioned is that “average” isn’t really indicative of much. The poor and lower-class spend a far larger amount of their income, about 25%, on food. The upper-middle class and wealthy significantly less. As Forbes says: “The more Americans make, the less they spend on food.”

And, many people spent essentially nothing at all, because they are on government nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP or WIC, and that doesn’t count in these statistics as a percentage of disposable income spent. Since many people using SNAP do have an income, their income is counted into the numbers used to get these statistics, but the amount spent on food using food stamps is not. Since 2008, the number of people on these assistance programs has increased dramatically. According to new USDA statistics just out (thank you Marion Nestle for pointing me to these), the number of people receiving SNAP benefits rose from 28.2M in 2008 to 40.3M in2010. That’s an increase of 12M people, and approximately 31 BILLION dollars, that is being spent on food but not tallied into Mr. Lieberman’s impressive-sounding statistics.

All this leads back to Mr. Lieberman’s continued and repeated assertion was that food prices have dropped, and that spending less of our national household income on food ” has “raised quality of life in our country.” He compares what we spend to France and Spain, who he says spend about 15% of family income on food.  “You can see how that raises quality of life in our nation,” says Mr. Lieberman. (I haven’t found the French and Spain stats for myself yet, largely because I don’t speak French or Spanish–please let me know if anyone out there has these stats.)

Let’s do some basic comparison, shall we? I’ll use Mr. Lieberman’s spending statistics,  just for fun.

Issue                                             US                           France                   Spain

Food spending                           9%                           15%                          15%

Overweight adults                    60%                            9%                         13.4%

Overweight Children                 33%                       13-15%                   25%

Type 2 Diabetes, Adult           25.9%                       3.5%                     10%

Heart disease Death*                106.5                         39.8                      53.8

*per 100,000 people

I think you get the idea here. I have no idea why Mr. Lieberman thinks that paying less for food has anything at all to do with quality of life. Diabetes, obesity, coronary disease…these have all increased dramatically as we decrease what we spend in food. I can’t speak for all Americans, of course, but I suspect that the majority would agree with me that “increased quality of life” is measured by health and well-being as well as dollars and cents. Looking at the statistics above, even if Mr. Lieberman’s 9% was accurate, it wouldn’t follow that the reduction in spending on food equals a better life.

For me, at least, increased quality of life doesn’t mean being sick and fat, even if it means I only have to spend 9% of my disposable income to get that way.

Resources:

Despite Higher Food Prices, Percent of U.S. Income Spent on Food Remains Constant., Annette Clauson.  http://www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/September08/Findings/PercentofIncome.htm

How The Average US Consumer Spends Their Paycheck, VisualEconomics.com. http://www.visualeconomics.com/how-the-average-us-consumer-spends-their-paycheck/

Americans Spend Less Than 10 Percent of Disposable Income on Food, Winston-Salem Newshttp://www.salem-news.com/articles/july192006/food_prices_71906.php

OECD Health Data, 2010. http://www.oecd.org/document/16/0,2340,en_2649_34631_2085200_1_1_1_1,00.html

American Diabetes Association

World Health Organization

Food stamp use and cost up sharply since 2008, by Marion Nestle. Foodpolitics.com.


Friday Fast Ones, Oct. 21, 2010

The company logo features an Ibex, chosen for ...

Image via Wikipedia

So, for those of you waiting for it: Yes, I am diligently working on a Part II to the whole “Feed the World” thing. It’s long, it’s complicated, and I’m writing it in between Life and Everything Else. So, keep checking, it’ll be here soon. Now, onto…

Friday Fast One: Hershey sources it’s chocolate from areas and suppliers known for child and forced labor. It’s a well-known problem, one that other chocolatiers have taken steps to help remedy. Except HersheyWhat This Means To You: Well, that depends on how much chocolate you eat. For me, it means taking a stand against Scharffen-Berger, a chocolate that was amazing and is unfortunately now owned by Hershey. It means buying chocolate from other candy companies, or forgoing it. If you purchase Hershey chocolates or candies, you’re supporting their practices. Chocolate shouldn’t be an indulgence built on the backs of children and slaves.

And…that’s it. I know, slow week, largely because the issues of the past few weeks (The Rawsome Food raid vs. the Egg Debacle) is still ongoing. And, enough bloggers have hopped on that issue and done it better than I could that I don’t feel compelled to do a Friday Fast One on it. Suffice it to say that you should eat local eggs and do all you can to support local dairy.

Have a great weekend, and swing by for Monday Healthy Eating on..well, Monday!


Clearing The Air & Knocking Down Straw Men, Part I: The Production Myth

I am incredibly tired of hearing people talk about how we need GMO crops to “feed the world,” and of being told I am a “bleeding heart” or “hippie idealist” because I am “more concerned with those damn animals” than “feeding the world.” So, this is specifically addressed to all those folks who clearly have no  idea what the hell they are talking about when they espouse The Production Myth.

What is The Production Myth?

It’s the idea that if we just keep producing more food, we’ll feed everyone in the world. It’s kind of like magic, really, or wishes when you were 4 years old: you wanted it to be, so be it must. Except that it’s wrong, and it’s time to grow up and face reality. Reality is that the world is not as simple as you want it to be, and it’s definitely not as simple as that guy trying to sell you fertilizer wants you to believe it is.

Let’s Start With The Truth

News flash: The world already produces enough food to feed the world. The problem is not production, despite what your local Monsanto representative keeps telling you.

Why Production Isn’t the Problem:

Have you *ever* walked into a supermarket and not found food there? Do you know that Americans throw out 20%  of the food we produce, according to the USDA, ( you’ll have to find that yourself because I only have it in paper at the moment, not as a link)? According to the New York Times, it’s 27%.  Yet another study by the University of Arizona puts it at HALF the food ready for harvest that is tossed away, unused. Regardless of the exact figure, I think we can all agree, it’s a lot.

Treating animals in a basic humane manner and feeding them the food they were intended to eat would not take food out of the mouths of starving children, because we already produce more than enough to feed these children. We don’t need more food, and especially not more meat, to feed the world:

From WorldHunger.org: The world produces enough food to feed everyone. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day (FAO 2002, p.9).  The principal problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food.”

Worth noting: The overwhelming majority of Americans, and indeed people worldwide, do not need anything near 2,720 calories daily. The daily average is, per the USDA, 2,000; and, most nutrition experts agree that that is too high for much of the population.

So, What Is The Problem?

If production isn’t our problem, then what is? Unfortunately, there’s no one thing, and anyone who tells you there is a magic bullet is selling something (probably RoundUp Ready seeds, despite research now showing RoundUp is almost certainly linked to birth defects). There’s many problems: politics, transportation, poverty, government subsidies, consumerism…the list goes on. I can’t cover them all in the scope of a blog, but I will try and make a good start.

What I am not covering here is the fact that it’s also been proven that organic production methods can not only yield as well or better than the “conventional” farming going on, but that organic methods actually improve yield over time by leaving the soil intact (or actually improving it). Or that, in the long run (and it’s not a very long run, btw), conventional farming methods will actually decrease yield as the environment becomes more toxic, less fertile, and less able to produce because of it. Why am I not going into all that here? Because I am working on a Part 2 dealing with all that. So, stay tuned.

What The Problems Really Are:

-Transportation, storage, and distribution. I don’t care how many peaches you produce, how much GE salmon you farm, how many cattle are shoved onto that feed lot, there’s no amount of food that suddenly overrides these issues.  Until and unless there’s a distribution system for countries with starving inhabitants, more food just means more waste in a country that already wastes 1/4 to 1/2 it’s food. Many foods simply do not ship or store well, including meat and produce (face it, most third world countries in which we’d be trying to eradicate hunger probably don’t have a freezer available to their poor) . Producing more isn’t going to change that these foods spoil, or the time it takes them to do so.

What we can get to other countries fairly easily is hard grain: wheat, corn, etc. Guess what we’re doing with it instead? Making it into things like  HFCS (a product with zero nutrient value) and feeding it to cows and chickens on industrial farms (the products of which can’t easily be transported and distributed to other countries where all those starving people are, right?). Want to feed the world? Stop eating conventional, corn-fed poultry and beef and switch to pastured, grass fed, the send the resulting grain surplus to Ethiopia, China, or Mexico.

“Wait, why can’t we get food to all those starving people” you ask? ” We have boats and trains and planes!” Yes, we do;  but, there are no Walmarts, Sam’s Clubs, or Kroger in the heart of, say, Zimbabwe. There is no company shipping this stuff for free, or a place to store it for free, let alone a way to distribute it. And even if they did, most of the people starving are also people living in poverty; so, unless farmers and corporations are going to donate all the products and live at a loss, exactly how are these starving people going to pay for their fruit and meat? Which bring us to…

-Poverty. Okay, say we find a way to get commercial meat to a village somewhere in Zimbabwe, someone funds a supermarket in a needy area, stocks it with goods, and hires employees to distribute those goods. Right. Does anyone honestly believe that either of these women  is saying “Oh, if only there was a supermarket nearby, I could get some hamburger for dinner!”

No. Even if that supermarket existed, these people almost certainly cannot afford to spend money on food, no matter how cheap it is.  Approximately one half, or almost 3 BILLION, people live in poverty.  Want more proof production isn’t the problem? Look at our own country. We have people living in poverty right here who cannot afford to eat fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. Does the fact that all of these items exist, in abundance, on store shelves change this? No. People still go hungry.  In a country that produces twice as many calories per day as our country needs, wouldn’t it follow that if production was what was needed to solve hunger, then no American would be hungry?

Simple Economics: What happens when we start overproducing items to the point that even the poorest of the poor can afford them (which, by the way, isn’t happening–meat prices have been rising, as have most other prices, despite reported production increases)? The only way production addresses the problem of hunger could theoretically be at this point, if it meant a drop in prices. To drop prices enough to feed those living in most poor countries of the world by production alone, however, farmers would have to grow food at little profit or an outright loss.  Our farmers can no longer make money. Farming, except with heavy subsidies, becomes unsustainable as a way to make a living. No farmers = no food. What then? Government take over? More government subsidies to huge corporations who are concerned not with feeding the world, but with the bottom line?

I recently had a former farm boy (whose family still owns their large conventional farm) tell me that GMO crops and serious pesticides and herbicides were necessary to “feed the world,” because we need more production or our growing population would starve, and that I was just an hippie idealist. My answer to this is: So, you’re hoping your dad’s going to go hungry, or sell the farm to huge corporate agriculture because they’re the only ones who can exist on a margin that thin, or that the government will step in and start doling out more subsidies?  Or do you somehow think that producing more food is magically going to make the starving child in Zimbabwe afford to be able to pay enough for your product that you can live on the profits? That the person shipping your goods isn’t going to want to get paid so that you can have the profit? That the supermarket who would be potentially selling this additional product would do so at no profit, so you can continue to exist as a farmer?

And they call me an idealist?

He didn’t get it, but those are the answers to the “we need more production to feed the world!” Unless, of course, you want to talk about making food in the areas where people are starving. Oh, wait, we already do that here in the US, and we still have people going hungry.

Consumerism and Bad Resource Management: Americans do not need more meat. Not only do we already throw away a vast quantity of it, but we also eat two to four times more of it than we should. The grain used to feed all this beef could be used to feed 800 million people, and that’s just grain from the US.   From the same Cornell news: “With only grass-fed livestock, individual Americans would still get more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of meat and dairy protein, according to Pimentel’s report, “Livestock Production: Energy Inputs and the Environment.”

Look, I am not a vegetarian. Just read my blog and it will be strikingly clear that we eat meat and like it. What we don’t eat is grain-fed meat. There’s no reason to do so.  We can eat a good, healthy amount of meat that was raised just fine on grass, in pasture.  If Americans cut their meat consumption, like they should for many reasons from health to environmental responsibility, and reallocated that grain to feeding the world, we’d be half way to “feeding the world,” while feeding our food animals what they’re supposed to be eating.

This isn’t hippie liberalism, it’s pragmatic resource allocation. I am not arguing we shouldn’t have any grain-fed beef;  but, I am saying that the US produces meat in excess that boggles the mind already. Simple math tells us that “increasing production” of this high-energy-input food isn’t the way to solve world hunger. Producing more grain to feed cows in the name of “feeding the world” is just ridiculous if for no other reason than it can’t work and it’s incredibly inefficient. Which brings us to…

Government Subsidies. From the EPA:  “According to the National Corn Growers Association, about eighty percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by domestic and overseas livestock, poultry, and fish production.” And: “Over 30 million tons of soybean meal are consumed as livestock feed in a year.” This is human-grade grain we’re talking about.

Why do we feed our cattle and poultry corn and soy? Because it’s cheap. Unfortunately, it’s artificially cheap. Cattle aren’t good converters of corn into meat, it’s a waste of resources. But, it’s cheap. Land that could grow other, more diverse crops as food for humans instead grows corn and soy for cattle, and every pound of of these fed to cattle, hogs, and poultry (poultry being the most efficient converter) loses caloric value. Morals, environmental issues, high-horses, and ideals aside, this is just an obviously poor use of the land from a strictly calories-per-acre standpoint. But, crops like fruits and vegetables aren’t subsidized, so there’s less incentive to grow them.

We can’t feed the world with our current system. Obviously, or we’d be doing it.  It’s a logical fallacy to say that the way to solve world hunger is to produce more food, when we already produce enough food to feed the world and people are still starving to death by the millions.

PART II: Clearing the Air and Knocking Down Straw Men, The Organic Wars


Where Do You Stand?

The USDA publishes average food costs each month. I’ve never posted these before, but a discussion came up on one of our boards. When looking at this, keep in mind it is for food only, not paper products, personal products, etc.

USDA Cost of Food

While we’re fairly frugal, we also eat really well. After deducting  personal products, etc. and averaging the costs for a month, we fall somewhere between thrifty and low-cost, depending on the week. I’ve been able to get us well under the “thrifty” at times, but it’s not a great way for us to try and eat. Thadd needs too many calories to make that reasonable for long (especially without a garden, which we didn’t have until this year due to apartment living), and we do try to eat healthy. Unfortunately, real produce costs a fortune!

So, where do you fit?


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