Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Chef Richardson's case for raw milk sales UPDATE

Posted By on Tue, Apr 2, 2013 at 1:29 PM

click to enlarge IN THE RAW: Chef Lee Richardson has joined the legislative battle to allow unpasteurized milk sales at the farm level.
  • IN THE RAW: Chef Lee Richardson has joined the legislative battle to allow unpasteurized milk sales at the farm level.

IN THE RAW: Chef Lee Richardson has joined the legislative battle to allow unpasteurized milk sales at the farm level.
  • IN THE RAW: Chef Lee Richardson has joined the legislative battle to allow unpasteurized milk sales at the farm level.
Lee Richardson, the award-winning former executive chef at Ashley's at the Capital Hotel, has been keeping busy lately working on a new business venture, but also getting engaged in the political process.

He's been striving to help pass HB 1536, which would allow the farm sales of unpasteurized milk in Arkansas. A somewhat unusual bipartisan collection supports the measure, though a far-right libertarian strain predominates. Richardson, by the way, has no commercial interest in the bill, but has long been an advocate for small local producers of foodstuffs.

Raw milk? Richardson contends the various state authorities that oppose the sale badly overstate the risk. I'll testify there's nothing like the raw milk cheeses you can buy from the surrender moneky cheese eaters in France, another product frowned on by persnickety U.S. regulators.

Richardson says the bill could be before a House committee again Friday. It failed on its first outing, 8-9, with 11 votes needed to move to the House floor. Richardson thinks some votes have been added.

With that vote coming, I thought it worth sharing Richardson's extensive thoughts on the subject. They follow on the jump. UPDATE: Kat Robinson at Tie Dye Travels also is plugging the bill and the benefits in cheese making.

By Lee Richardson

I left the Capital Hotel after almost seven years last summer in pursuit of my own restaurant. While I do have something I have been working on, it isn't close enough in time to interfere with my decision to champion this bill. Although I do choose and seek out farm fresh milk for my family, my pitch is not so much on behalf of my personal consumption. I was drawn to Arkansas, not so much by the Capital Hotel as by the access I found to small, artisanal, family farms and the abundance of high quality products they could provide.

I made an immediate connection with 5th generation Grady farmer, Jody Hardin, who 5 years ago was showcasing products from a dozen small farms from every corner of the state. He later parlayed that network into the beginnings of additional farmer's markets, all of which were focused on committing to Certified Arkansas origins. I believe these developments to represent an important niche market and sense of community that I have watched grow exponentially over the last 7 years. I focused my efforts on leveraging these products to launch an effort toward national recognition of an otherwise unconsidered Arkansas food story. I was heard; I was acknowledged by Food and Wine Magazine as one of America's 10 Best regional chefs in 20011 and I have been a semifinalist nominee by the James Beard Foundation for Best Chef of the South for six years and for Best New Restaurant in 2008 just 6 months after Ashley's opened.

I tell you all this, not to make a case for myself, but for the substance and value that a celebration and broadcast of Arkansas' locally grown products has realized. What I really find to be the most catching detail is that a very significant number of these small producers were not born into farming. They are not all an old dying breed. Many of these people are young, educated, with degrees in engineering and chemistry, or career changers with IT and financial backgrounds who are studying sustainable agriculture methods on their own and choosing to trade in more financially promising jobs for a lifestyle and a purpose that they believe in. They are bucking an otherwise disconcerting trend.

My customers and I have a mutual friend; we share a farmer. This connection enriches the experience that my customers have in my restaurant as well as the experience they have at the market. While the bill does not provide for the sale of raw milk at the farmer's market or in my restaurant, or resale at all for that matter. The bill seeks to allow the legalization of the incidental sale of 500 gallons of milk per month on the farm. This amounts to the output of approximately 3 cows. It would not support college tuition, or put anyone into the dairy business. But it is a significant help to a small vegetable grower who raises some chickens to produce eggs and /or a few pigs or goats or whatever. The opening up of on-farm sales of fresh milk adds a destination component to the enterprise, enriching a sense of community and offers kids an opportunity to stay in touch with food sources. This kind of thing is becoming more important to more people every day. It otherwise allows rural neighbors to engage in trade, legally. Where we see shriveling rural communities, this level of fresh milk sales can plant a seed for the regeneration of small farms. The limitation in transportability and need for proximity of the milk trade positions the cow as the anchor to the small farm's provision for its surrounding community. These farmers absolutely cannot get into row crops, they could never afford it. I think we need row crops too. But if this bill fails, this enrichment of lifestyle is stunted and this new generation of family farmers is sent another message that they are not valued. The furthest place you can get from food in Arkansas is probably in a cornfield.

That was my view and an offering of fresh perspective to the debate that is going on across the country; more than half of the states allow sales of raw milk, some, even at the retail level.

The list of opposing interests is short, but powerful:The Arkansas Health Department; The Arkansas Milk Stabilization Board, The Dairy industry and the Farm Bureau.

The primary objections are all essentially health related:

1. The risk of foodborne illness

The opposing side has been very effective at leveraging the fact that ANY potential for illness supports their position against legalization. As an additional shield to further consideration, the FDA and CDC have both issued statements against the consumption of raw milk. No matter that the actual data shows that not only has no one died from raw milk related illness, but there is very very little record of raw milk related illness to begin with, moreover, the data shows dairy, particularly milk to be the safest of food groups.

2. The negative impact on the industry as a whole that could result from a raw milk related health incident

The argument here often references pink slime burgers tainted with E.Coli made from beef parts aggregated from multiple hemispheres into the same patty and sickening scores of people, if not hundreds and killing some in the process…that such incidences have damaged the beef industry as a whole. In this case we are talking about direct to consumer sales, on the farm, between people who know each other, or at least can look each other in the eye..up to a whopping 16 gallons per day. What's ironic here is that the industry at large is spending money obfuscating fact in monopolistic fashion to block competition while the fresh milk advocacy is consolidating the very information and forcing the realization that even Big Dairy is safer than other foods. Raw milk should be the new ad campaign for a dying industry. Meanwhile, as fresh milk is illegal, there is no progress in advancing education towards the lack of significance of probable risk nor the varied and meaningful health benefits that are realized with fresh milk that has not been pasteurized.

3. The cost and logistics of creating and implementing a system of regulation

This point is somewhat unwieldy, in that, it seems to me, the intensity of inspection is presumed to need to be at the same level required for big industry, where there could be hundreds more producing animals in any given operation, where the milk is combined and subsequently combined with milk from other similar operations and without any intimacy in production. The answer is simple here, and it is actually looking like both sides are firmly in agreement. Neither wants a bunch of regulation or the cost that goes along with it. The solution is simple and ancient. There is no third party reseller, transport agent, consolidation of product from multiple sources or any other reason to invoke government interference or oversight. it is the very simplest form of transaction between two individuals and taking place at the source.

The raw milk advocates are: small farmers who want a place in their community, mothers and families in search of unprocessed, clean un-irradiated whole natural foods, people that are intolerant to lactose, people that don't like the taste of cooked milk, people seeking the positive health attributes of living milk. advocates of constitutional choice, civil liberty.

Price alone is a powerful factor. Raw milk will sell at twice the price of store milk. This requires a discriminating buyer

The industry’s track record is that it has done 0 for the farmer and, diminished its customer base by making milk less digestible, then doubled back and wasted taxpayer money to support the industry at processor level.

The arguments in support of access to fresh milk include:

1. choice

2. enzymes and digestibility

2. probiotics and immune

4. shelf life and utility

Some conclusions I have drawn about the Government/Opposing Agency positions:

* If the data shows it is not a significant risk, you can overlook the facts if the FDA has advised against it

* You neither trust the consumer to make their own food selections, nor do you believe that as an american citizen, it is even within their constitutional right.

* It's cheaper to make it or keep it illegal

* You are concerned about the dwindling numbers of dairies in the state, but you also don't want to spend money inspecting them if we were to add more.

* An economic development committee has chosen to go forward with fewer options and a less diversified portfolio

* It is better to have the perception of eliminating risk than to have the assurance of value

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