March 2, 2010

Maine Voices: Raw milk story confuses real debate with false balance

By MICHAEL BENDZELA

- STANDISH - There are studies showing that the American public is scientifically illiterate, in spite of this country's reputation as a pioneering society. One cause of this deficiency might be what passes for "objective" journalism these days.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Michael Bendzela
is an adjunct professor of English at the University of Southern Maine.

The sham of "objective" journalism is revealed when one compares it with science education.

Biology teachers, in an effort to disseminate truly "objective" information, don't give equal time to creationist arguments alongside evolutionary ones. The scientific consensus overwhelmingly supports Darwin's idea, feelings of outside observers notwithstanding. This is what the evidence points to.

Not so with journalism, where every point of view, no matter how absurd, is treated with blind deference. The utility of this is that deadline-obsessed writers can do as little analytical work as possible.

Take a recent Associated Press article by Michael J. Crumb about raw milk ("Debate over product's safety spills into capitols, courts," Feb. 28).

The standard "objective" journalistic technique is on full display here: quote people from two "sides," repeat statistics divorced of any context, and pretend to have "covered" the "issue." Thus, the more one reads, the less one learns.

The article leaves the impression that anyone with an opinion about raw milk is either on the side of the hyper-paranoid Centers for Disease Control or the pseudo-scientific Weston A. Price Foundation. There are actually many independent milk producers who disagree with both extremes.

To start with, Crumb cites CDC statistics without context. In 13 years of study, 1,500 people became "ill" from raw milk, 185 were "hospitalized," and two died. This means nothing unless one knows the percentage of raw-milk drinkers this represents: Were there hundreds, thousands, or millions of drinkers of raw milk who didn't get sick or die? How does this compare with other risks, such as children traveling in cars?

According to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, 250,000 children are injured and 2,000 die in car accidents every year! Half of them use car seats or seat belts, so 1,000 kids die in restraining devices yearly.

Should we therefore ban children from riding in car seats?

The comparable risk of death from drinking properly-handled raw milk -- two persons dead in 13 years equals 0.154 person per year -- is so small it's laughable.

In addition, the CDC's figures about the "risks" of raw milk leave out contributing factors, such as how the tainted doses of raw milk were handled by the consumers and whether the people who were sickened had pre-existing conditions that may have made them more susceptible to illness.

This doesn't mean, however, that we should side with Sally Fallon Morell and her Weston A. Price Foundation, whom Crumb cites as an "advocate" in the raw milk "debate."

Named after a Cleveland dentist who, in the 1930s, studied the diets of various pre-industrial tribes and correlations with tooth decay, WAPF nutritionists (not dieticians) now claim that "primitive" diets are "better," ignoring the fact that these tribes had lower overall life expectancies.

The WAPF touts the "benefits" of raw milk consumption, such as "resistance" to diseases such as tuberculosis and scurvy, regardless of the fact that Price himself never advocated this.

Also, Price's studies on pre-industrial tribes are pretty irrelevant for dairy consumption, which is a relatively recent development in human cultural evolution.

This is what passes for "objectivity" in the article: the raw milk "debate" is about fear-mongers versus quacks. On one side are bureaucrats advocating more controls; on the other "nutritionists" with dietary superstitions at stake.

The article ignores the many of us small farmers with moderate views. We use our own raw milk because it is fresh and because we like skimming off the thick cream for home-made butter. We use it because we like it, not because we think it is some magic elixir.

Yet we also understand that it must be used fresh, and that it must be pasteurized when making yogurt and cottage cheese so the cultures are more controllable. We use it with discretion for the same reason people use alcohol with discretion -- because it makes sense.

A simple label could solve this whole problem: Raw milk is food, not medicine. If you have safety concerns, pasteurize it at home by heating to 185 degrees.

It would take much more than a warning label, however, to solve the problem of superficial, ambivalent journalism that is useless for the consumer.

 

- Special to the Press Herald

 

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