Monday, November 14, 2011

A measure of paternalism

Is measuring alcohol units a good thing? That was the question posed by a debate on Saturday at the Battle of Ideas. At first glance, it seems entirely reasonable that we should know the alcohol content of a given drink. But units are quite different: they allow us to compare the amount of alcohol to an ostensibly objective 'daily guideline'.

It very quickly emerged that this 'guideline' is flawed, if not harmful. From a medical perspective, it is almost impossible to predict the effect of alcohol on the average person. After all, we all have different levels of tolerance, are susceptible to different conditions, and are affected by a multitude of other factors too. The truth is all alcohol is unhealthy; and we know it! But by creating this artificial, arbitrary, and ultimately quite useless measure of alcohol consumption, we risk creating a problem. By definition.

Without an objective standard of what is healthy and unhealthy, we tend to conform to cultural norms. Alcohol consumption experiences its ups and downs, with one generation guzzling gin in Georgian proportions, and another religiously enthralled to temperance. Society itself defines this level of socially acceptable drinking. When we exceed it we are seen to have a problem. More importantly, we're brought up to see ourselves as having a problem, and in extreme cases friends and family intervene. It is a process that has been serving humanity well since at least 3000 BC, when Egypt's Pharaohs started mass-producing wine.

Despite agreeing that the measurement was flawed, a panellist at a government health body stood up and said that we nevertheless needed to look beyond the individual's right to drink, and look at society as a whole. He implied that measures needed to be taken to protect people from themselves, as individuals are too stupid or ignorant to know what is good for them. And thus that society is too ill informed to define an acceptable drinking norm. He brought up extreme problem cases, citing studies of alcohol addiction, and its effects on families and friends. Another doctor chipped in by saying the flaws of alcohol units paled in comparison to the need to inform the public of what they are consuming. They all called for greater regulation, restrictions and taxation, to the detriment of all drinkers.

Of course doctors know better than anyone else what the individual can suffer from excessive alcohol consumption, but these statements suggest a more sinister campaign for wider social control rather than individualised help for the particular patient. There is a fundamental difference between providing "information", and providing knowledge. The first is by their own admission deeply biased. Whereas knowledge is already provided not only by individual diagnoses and by society at large, but every Saturday morning by alcohol's very own resident teacher from experience: the hangover.


"Organic" milk fad fails the taste test

A NEW breed of boutique milk is flooding Melbourne's cafe scene - and customers are being charged four times more for it than regular milk. But the Herald Sun has found customers prefer the taste of the regular $1-a-litre full cream milk from Coles.

The new premium varieties are straight from family farms in Victoria. Brands such as Jonesy's and Schultz Organic Milk are becoming increasingly popular with baristas. But they come at a price, in some cases selling for more than four times as much as supermarket varieties. One organic milk is selling for $4.50 a litre, compared with $1-a-litre varieties in supermarkets.

Yet a blind taste test by Herald Sun readers has found most still prefer the Coles $1-a-litre full cream variety over organic brands. Several of our blind tasters said there was very little difference between the milk brands.

Owner of three Melbourne cafes, Marinus Jansen, exclusively uses Jonesy's milk. He said he had a strong personal relationship with the Somerville family of Kerang, who produced Jonesy's, and had received great feedback about the creaminess and taste of the milk from coffee lovers. "The reality is, we're giving our customers a better product, and the money is going back to the local community," he said.

Mr Jansen said independent milk suppliers were more expensive than the multinationals, but the milk's better quality far outweighed the extra cost.

Jonesy's Dairy Fresh owner Rhonda Somerville said her family went independent in December 2009 because of unsustainable milk prices from the big companies, but in the process they embraced a more natural approach. "What comes from the cow goes into the bottle ... we don't pull apart our milk and put it together again," she said.

Simon Schultz, of Schulz Organic Farms in Timboon, said his business had doubled in the past financial year. "The restaurants and cafes are always looking for something different. It's really driven by consumer demand," he said.

Many Australian farmers say the big supermarkets' price cuts on milk are slashing their profits, and in Victoria the export focused dairy industry is experiencing the volatility of shaky global markets. So some family farms have been hitting back by bypassing the big companies, that usually homogenise and pasteurise their milk, and producing it themselves.

United Dairyfarmers of Victoria president Kerry Callow said while global milk prices were volatile, there were significant challenges to striking out alone. "In Victoria we are largely export focused, so the big companies are important players in our industry," she said.

Wayne Mulcahy, of Kyvalley Farms in Kyabram, said he and his brothers had also turned independent to avoid swings in milk prices and had enjoyed success with local markets.

"Customers like to support independent suppliers because we're just a small farming family in Victoria. they want to support Victorians," he said.


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