When it comes to raw milk, even a simple story can turn sour on some listeners. There's an ongoing controversy over raw milk's safety. Proponents hail its taste and nutrients. Adversaries worry about deadly food-borne diseases. Government regulators are caught in between, accused of being too lax, too stiff or too in bed with Big Dairy.
Then there is NPR. Its science and health reporters are familiar with the debate; you can find their ongoing coverage primarily on The Salt, NPR's food blog. But concerns didn't reach me until Bonny Wolf, a regular food commentator for NPR, did a short piece for Weekend Edition Sunday in which she described her first sip.
"It didn't taste like a bad idea. It tasted like milk - fresh, rich milk," she said.
That approving statement—and the commentary that followed—left some listeners feeling as though Wolf did the audience a dangerous disservice.
"How could this qualify as reporting on NPR?," wrote Jo Ann Lutz from Durham, NC. "The article implied that the government is wrong to require milk to be pasteurized and that the nutrients in raw milk are very important."
"Where were the facts?," Lutz added. "What are the illnesses the government is worried about?"
Orpheus Allison wrote from as far away as Guangzhou, China, to say Wolf's commentary "exacerbates a growing ignorance at where diseases enter the food stream."
Full disclosure: I am no virgin in this controversy. I have drunk raw camel milk in the desert of Mauritania, raw goat milk in dirt-road villages in Colombia and raw cow milk in lots of places. I regularly buy European cheeses made from raw milk of cows, goats and sheep. My mother, who was raised in rural Colombia on raw goat milk that she milked herself, is a healthy 90 years old and still lights up with joy when she describes the pleasures as a girl of squirting the milk into her mouth straight from the teat.
My anecdotal experience is hardly empirical, and you will have to judge for yourself whether you think that I am misguided by bias. Wolf in her report did correctly cite a cautionary study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and a warning from the Food and Drug Administration about the dangers of raw milk. She did not dismiss the reports as somehow wrong.
"My purpose was to call attention to what I've perceived as an increasingly visible controversy over the raw milk issue," she wrote to me, and that is just what she did. As it is, it's legal to sell raw milk in some form in about 30 states. She didn't say one side was right or wrong, but she did try raw milk herself, and, well, it tasted good to her. She left the science to be decided.
In a two-minute format, I thought that she and her editor Geoff Bennett did a good job in being interesting, fair and informative. The light touch was not inappropriate.
Yes, the pasteurization of milk was one of the great public health achievements of humankind. Modern urban societies are hardly structured for the proper care of raw milk, and neither are many farms. China is a perfect example today of poor food regulation and what can happen with adulterated foods. Food poisoning scandals there have even threatened the government's legitimacy. But none of this is to say that raw milk is a priori bad.
Through organic and back-to-the-earth movements, we as a society are feeling our way in trying to find a re-balance with industrial food production. We haven't settled on a balance yet, and may never. But we do have the luxury of a trustworthy government and regulatory protection—at least trustworthy enough so that NPR and the news media can, on occasion, make light of the choices. While passions among advocates on both sides may be high, I suspect that most of us accept that we are not facing Armageddon in this story.
NPR, meanwhile, has done longer, more serious stories on the science itself. When the CDC issued a report in March about how unpasteurized dairy products can cause diseases such as E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria, Nancy Shute wrote about it for The Salt. This followed up on an earlier web story, "Raw Milk Movement Takes Hits from Courts, Health Officials." Less has been done on air, however.
Finally, Wolf is a commentator—and was described as such in the introduction to her piece. By design she can take some liberty in her reports. Her role is different from that of a reporter. We want to hear her expert opinion, though it is supposed to be supported by facts and analysis, and only in her fields of expertise. Wolf, a food journalist and critic for more than 30 years, correctly gave a food opinion: to her, the milk tasted good. But also correctly, she didn't take a stance on the science, which is not her expertise. Other familiar NPR commentators include Frank Deford, Cokie Roberts, David Brooks and EJ Dionne.
But I will say that many members of our audience are literate and insightful. Maybe food issues bring out the best passions in all of us. Below are some of the comments on both sides of the issue. You will enjoy them. Please add your own.
Stephannie Stokes contributed to this report.