Monday, May 05, 2008

Legally enforced food correctness

No choice allowed. There are many reasons why raw milk might have advantages as well as disadvantages. Where I grew up there was a lot of raw milk consumed and when the kids in my class at school were tested for TB, we had all had it -- with no ill effects. It was probably the local milk that had immunized us as cows do carry bacilli of that type. There should be some allowance for people who wish to think for themselves

The agents arrived before dawn. They concealed the squad car and police van behind trees, and there, on the road that runs past Michael Schmidt’s farm in Durham, Ontario, they waited for the dairyman to make his move. A team from the Ministry of Natural Resources had been watching Schmidt for months, shadowing him on his weekly runs to Toronto. Two officers had even infiltrated the farmer’s inner circle, obtaining for themselves samples of his product. Lab tests confirmed their suspicions. It was raw milk. The unpasteurized stuff. Now the time had come to take him down.

Schmidt had risen that morning at 4 a.m. He milked his cows and ate breakfast. He loaded up a delivery, then fired up the bus. But as he reached the end of the driveway, two cars moved in to block his path. A police officer stepped into the road and raised his hand. Another ran to the bus and banged on the door. Others were close behind. Eventually twenty-four officers from five different agencies would search the farm. Many of them carried guns. “The farm basically flooded, from everywhere came these people,” Schmidt later told me in his lilting German accent. “It looked like the Russian army coming, all these men with earflap hats.”

The process of heating milk to kill bacteria has been common for nearly a century, and selling unpasteurized milk for human consumption is currently illegal in Canada and in half the U.S. states. Yet thousands of people in North America still seek raw milk. Some say milk in its natural state keeps them healthy; others just crave its taste. Schmidt operates one of the many black-market networks that supply these raw-milk enthusiasts.

Schmidt showed men in biohazard suits [In biohazard suits?? What jerks!] around his barn, both annoyed and amused by the absurdity of the situation. The government had known that he was producing raw milk for at least a dozen years, yet an officer was now informing him that they would be seizing all the “unpasteurized product” and shuttling it to the University of Guelph for testing.

In recent years, raids of this sort have not been unusual. In October 2006, Michigan officials destroyed a truckload of Richard Hebron’s unpasteurized dairy. The previous month, the Ohio Department of Agriculture shut down Carol Schmitmeyer’s farm for selling raw milk. Cincinnati cops also swooped in to stop Gary Oaks in March 2006 as he unloaded raw milk in the parking lot of a local church. When bewildered residents gathered around, an officer told them to step away from “the white liquid substance.” The previous September an undercover agent in Ohio asked Amish dairyman Arlie Stutzman for a jug of unpasteurized milk. Stutzman refused payment, but when the agent offered to leave a donation instead, the farmer said he could give whatever he thought was fair. Busted.

If the police actions against Schmidt and other farmers have been overzealous, they are nevertheless motivated by a real threat. The requirement for pasteurization—heating milk to at least 161 degrees Fahrenheit for fifteen seconds—neutralizes such deadly bacteria as Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli, and salmonella. Between 1919, when only a third of the milk in Massachusetts was pasteurized, and 1939, when almost all of it was, the number of outbreaks of milk-borne disease fell by nearly 90 percent. Indeed, pasteurization is part of a much broader security cordon set up in the past century to protect people from germs. Although milk has a special place on the watch list (it’s not washable and comes out of apertures that sit just below the orifice of excretion), all foods are subject to scrutiny. The thing that makes our defense against raw milk so interesting, however, is the mounting evidence that these health measures also could be doing us great harm.

Over the past fifty years, people in developed countries began showing up in doctors’ offices with autoimmune disorders in far greater numbers. In many places, the rates of such conditions as multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and Crohn’s disease have doubled and even tripled. Almost half the people living in First World nations now suffer from allergies. It turns out that people who grow up on farms are much less likely to have these problems. Perhaps, scientists hypothesized, we’ve become too clean and aren’t being exposed to the bacteria we need to prime our immune systems.

What we pour over our cereal has become the physical analogue of this larger ideological struggle over microbial security. The very thing that makes raw milk dangerous, its dirtiness, may make people healthier, and pasteurization could be cleansing beneficial bacteria from milk. The recent wave of raw-milk busts comes at a time when new evidence is invigorating those who threaten to throw open our borders to bacterial incursion. Public-health officials are infuriated by the raw milkers’ sheer wrongheadedness and inability to correctly interpret the facts, and the raw milkers feel the same way about them. Milk as it emerges from the teat, it seems, is both panacea and poison.



I thought I might say a little more about my experience of raw milk. We got it from a local Danish guy named Augie Sorensen. Augie had a farmlet not far from us on which he ran dairy cattle. He used to supply unpasteurized milk (probably illegally) to quite a few Innisfail households -- including ours for a while. People would leave out a container and Augie would come along and fill it with very fresh milk.

The memorable thing about him however was his milk delivery vehicle -- a white horse-drawn cart that looked rather like a chariot. It did however have pneumatic tyres. The milk was stored under cover at the front of the cart and Augie stood up at the back to "drive".

I can still see Augie, tall and thin with his typically Scandinavian golden-brown skin and wearing his white pith helmet while standing up proudly in the back of his white cart guiding it along with his long reins. His big chestnut horse always used to have blinkers on -- probably needed if it was to be driven among motor vehicles.

My mother did not patronize Augie for long. She went back to bottled milk -- probably because of health concerns. But there is no doubt that Augie's milk tasted better. The authorities eventually caught up with him and closed him down though. Apparently his cows DID have TB or brucellosis in them. The fact that nobody came down with TB as a result of drinking Augie's milk did not matter to the bureaucrats at all, of course.

Super protein could ease treatment for cancer

AUSTRALIAN scientists have discovered a gene that could revolutionise the way cancers are treated and end aggressive chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Researchers have identified a super protein, called hSSB1, that cancer cells need to survive but that normal cells can function without. It is hoped the breakthrough will lead to the development of a new drug that targets the hSSB1 gene, destroying cancerous cells while leaving healthy cells intact, said co-author Liza Cubeddu, from the University of Sydney's School of Molecular and Microbial Biosciences.

"Not only does chemotherapy kill off the cancerous cells, it also kills off healthy cells, leading to severe nausea, fatigue, hair loss and in some cases death," Dr Cubeddu said. "This drug could revolutionise how cancers are treated and potentially put an end to aggressive DNA-damaging chemotherapies and radiotherapy treatments."

The international study, published in the prestigious journal Nature, was based on the study of an ancient organism which lives in boiling sulphuric acid pools in Iceland by Derek Richard, from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research.

Known as archaea, these single- celled micro-organisms survive in one of the most extreme environments on Earth, relying on hSSB1 to protect and repair its DNA. Institute scientists found hSSB1 also exists in humans. "When we discovered this gene we thought it might be important for DNA repair and genome stability, but we were amazed by just how important it seems to be," said Professor Malcolm White, from the University of St Andrews in Britain.

The body's DNA suffers damage from environmental factors such as exposure to toxic chemicals and UV radiation, as well as genetic factors. "An average cell's DNA is damaged 30,000 times every day, and without hSSB1 these cells cannot repair their genes," Dr Richard said. "The next challenge is to find out how it signals that DNA is damaged, and determine if it plays a role in the development of cancer or in patients' responses to chemotherapy and radiotherapy." QIMR and drug discovery firm Cancer Therapeutics are working on a drug based on the findings.


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