Supporting small-scale producers and dairy operators is a critically important mandate to preserve industry’s vitality and protect consumer choice—but not at the expense of food safety.

Why does every issue requiring sober, serious discussion have to presented in an over-the-top, inflammatory manner? I suppose the obvious response is, “That’s how politics are played.”

But when the issue isn’t political but health-related, there are almost always confounding variables that need to be addressed and rarely any quick and easy answers to complex situations.

Which is why such issues are controversial in the first place.

Case in point: The sale of raw milk, unpasteurized milk. There are plenty of public- and private-sector health authorities who are aghast at attempts to legalize such sales. Their argument is potent: Nobody considers milk to be a “dangerous” food product — but that’s because mandatory pasteurization is strictly enforced!

Those who oppose restrictions on the sale of raw milk, however, always seem to play the “freedom and liberty” card.

For example, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) recently penned an op-ed for the Cincinnati Enquirer in which he likened a seizure of raw milk on a Pennsylvania farms by FDA agents and local law enforcement to a Navy Seal team assault.

“In 2011, federal agents launched a sting operation on an Amish farmer,” he wrote. “Federal agents watched the home closely for a year, gathering evidence. Then, in a pre-dawn raid, armed members from three agencies swooped in. No, this is not a retelling of the lightning U.S. commando attack in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Rather, the target of the raid…was Amish farmer Dan Allgyer of Kinzers, Pennsylvania. His so-called ‘crime’ involved nothing more than providing unpasteurized, or raw, dairy milk to eager consumers.

“While the over criminalization that causes a peaceful Amish farmer to be treated like a dangerous criminal is increasingly common in the U.S., it is particularly outrageous to penalize Americans for their personal food choices. In the words of Ronald Reagan, ‘Government has gone beyond its limits [when it decides] to protect us from ourselves.”

I don’t know the actual details of the seizure, and it’s quite possible that the operation could have been conducted in a more benign fashion. But it is a wild exaggeration to suggest that FDA is “penalizing” Americans for personal food choices by taking raw milk off the market.

FDA’s mission is protecting public health, and whenever the agency approves a drug with serious side effects, or authorizes use of a medical device that creates risks and potential problems, consumer advocates are all over the department like a pit bull on a poodle.

And should a serious health outbreak occur because some peaceful farmer — Amish or otherwise — sold unpasteurized milk contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, again, FDA’s lack of oversight would be attacked with all the ferocity described in Rep. Massie’s imagined pre-dawn raid.

There are real, not imagined, health risks inherent in raw milk. If the entire herd is healthy (along with the entire dairy farm’s work force), and the farmer is scrupulous about hygiene and sanitation, raw milk can be safe to consume.

The operative phrase being, “can be.” Not, “will be.”

Nevertheless, Massie is planning to re-introduce his Milk Freedom Act (H.R. 4307) and the Interstate Milk Freedom Act (H.R. 4308), originally introduced during the 113th Congress. Both bills would permit farmers to legally distribute unpasteurized milk and overturn current FDA regulations banning the interstate sale of raw milk.

If he were motivated strictly by a desire to assist smaller dairy farmers by opening up a specialty market, his bill would deserve the serious discussion alluded to in the opening sentence of this commentary. But it’s obvious that his intention is to score political points by striking a blow against “Big Government’s” suppression of people’s freedom — which is fine until it’s you or your loved one getting sick from drinking contaminated milk.

In that case, don’t bother calling his congressional office for help.

Theory vs. reality

That said, Massie is sponsoring a similar bill — in the name of freedom and liberty, of course — that does have economic merit far outweighing its impact on food safety. His PRIME Act (Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act — H.R. 3187) would permit intrastate distribution and sale of custom-slaughtered beef, pork and lamb to consumers, restaurants, supermarkets and HRI customers.

Unfortunately, his congressional office is positioning the measure as a bill “To remove federal barriers that interfere with our freedom to process, eat, and sell locally raised meat.”

Such rhetoric is unfortunate and unnecessary, because there’s a legitimate issue here to be addressed. As Massie’s own statement noted, the number of USDA-inspected packing plants has diminished significantly over the past two decades. Diminished? Heck, let’s be honest. In many rural areas — precisely where the livestock live — they’ve disappeared altogether.

Thus, smaller ranchers and farmers are forced to ship their animals to distant packing plants for processing. This adds significant additional costs, impacts the quality of the meat and makes it challenging for people to find locally grown meat.

And it doesn’t do the livestock any good to spend hour after hour inside a long-haul trailer, either.

Is Massie proposal a good idea? Conceptually, yes. But not because slaughtering is inherently low-risk, or because people get into that business of meatpacking seeking a care-free career where they can enjoy maximum freedom from government oversight. Expanding opportunities for small-scale and specialty producers is all about sustaining business opportunities, improving consumer choice and protecting farms, pastures and rangeland from begin taken out of production.

“Freedom” is way down the list of reasons why Congress should remove some restrictions on custom slaughter plants. Truth is, small-scale packing plants these days tend to be quite safe and sanitary, but that’s because virtually all of the marginal operators have been driven out of the business by the very regulations Rep. Massie deplores.

Yes, local food production is a positive and valuable objective, but it trumps neither food safety nor consumer protection. Massie’s statement insisted that, “The federal government should never interfere with choices as personal as the foods we eat and feed our families.”

Wrong. It’s not interference, it’s prudence when government works to assures basic standards of sanitation and exercises oversight to assure public health and safety.

The PRIME bill deserves serious consideration, but for economic reasons, not to wave a flag of freedom when it’s not the issue at stake.  

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator