A whole lot of drama: Raw milk, Hollywood celebrities, and a politically suicidal senator

The raw milk debate is heating up in California -- and pasteurization has nothing to do with it.

California’ raw milk community is continuing the fight to reform a draconian bacteria standard passed last year. They've proposed new legislation that would allow raw-milk dairies to develop a custom food safety program -- essentially a HACCP plan -- in lieu of complying with the new bacteria standards. On its face, SB 201 is great legislation, but it does have a number of weaknesses that I have described before.

The legislation passed both houses of the California legislature with only four votes in opposition, all in the Senate. It's now sitting on the governor's desk. Supporters need the Governor to sign the bill if it is going to stick; an override by the legislature is not guaranteed if the bill gets vetoed.  California dairy cows added their own dose of political drama yesterday, though, when CDFA announced a recall of Organic Pastures cream dated September 12 for Campylobacter contamination. (There have been no reported illnesses.) SB 201 would mandate additional testing for pathogens --twice weekly for E. coli 0157:H7 -- but one criticism of the bill is that there is not increased testing for Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Listeria. The cows are telling the regulators’ story.

A target for termination?
When your governor is Arnold Schwarzenegger, it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between a policy debate and a red carpet Hollywood shindig. The newest case in point was Martin Sheen's appearance on stage at a press conference held at a Southern CA Whole Foods to speak on behalf of the California supply of raw milk and SB 201. Referring to pasteurization of milk, Sheen told the local CBS affiliate in his best presidential voice that “[pasteurization] purifies [milk] to the point that it nullifies it.”

During the press conference, Sheen was joined by bill author Senator Dean Florez and the owners of the two California raw dairies. The otherwise feel-good press conference took a strange turn when Haphazard Gourmet Girls blogger Eddie Gehman Kohan heckled Senator Florez from the crowd. In a show of bipartisanship befitting the nation's favorite president, Sheen invited her to speak in opposition to the legislation, which she did.

Having attended a number of raw milk events myself, I expected the heckling and surprise pathogen appearance to be the most interesting part of the week's events. But I was in for a surprise.

The Los Angeles CBS affiliate covered the story and included clips of speakers and hecklers alike. At 35 seconds into the video clip on CBS Channel 2 (which you can find via the reporter's blog), voters across the state can observe Senator Dean Florez, Democrat from California’s dairy country, tie a noose that could well hang him. In a politically unfortunate four seconds, Florez states:

“The reality is that pasteurized milk is milk that has been burned to a point where all the nutrients are out.”

That message isn't exactly the one being touted by the many programs funded by the dairy checkoff, whose ad campaigns do their best to convince me that pasteurized milk is nutrient-rich and may even help my waistline. Nor will it likely go over well with Californians worried over yesterday's cream recall.

If I were running for Lieutenant Governor on the Democratic ticket, as is Senator Florez, I would not expect the support of the conservative dairy leaders, but I do know that I would work hard not to tick them off unnecessarily. It’s one thing not to have a group’s support. It is quite another to have a group seeking to teach you a lesson.

Perhaps raw milk will make a big political splash after all -- and not just because of Martin Sheen.

In the meantime, the Governor holds the raw milk bill, and we wait.

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