The case for raw milk
Karen Selick, National Post · Dec. 27, 2011 | Last Updated: Dec. 27, 2011 3:09 AM ET
Raw-milk crusader Michael Schmidt finally got to meet with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty last month after a 37-day hunger strike. But the Premier told him the government had no plans to change the law to legalize raw milk sales, and that it would rely on the best advice of medical experts.
But what is the best advice of medical experts? Perhaps the better question is what is it today - as anyone who closely follows medical news knows, what's considered healthy one week is often feared, or dismissed, the next. Forty years ago, for example, women were told to perform a self-exam every month to check for breast cancer. Last month, experts retracted that advice: Breast self-exams "have no benefit and should not be used."
Dramatic reversals of expert opinion like this are not unusual. Decades ago, approximately 90% of children underwent tonsillectomies; now, only 20% do. Today tonsils are recognized as important organs in children's immune systems. Prior to 1994, experts at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) forbade health-food marketers Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw from putting this statement on fish oil supplements: "Consumption of omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease." Pearson and Shaw challenged the FDA's ruling in court, and after seven years of litigation, the FDA finally capitulated.
During those seven years, a million Americans suffered suddendeath heart attacks, some of which might have been prevented if consumers had been given the information that is now considered established science. Health Canada's website, for instance, now says consuming omega-3 fatty acids may have not only cardiovascular benefits, but also beneficial effects on diabetes, depression, cancer, lupus, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.
Sometimes the about-face comes much more quickly. The drug Avastin was approved by Health Canada for treating breast cancer in February of 2009, but approval was withdrawn last month, because its side effects include the increased risk of death from heart attacks and strokes.
Politicians may find it convenient to sidestep difficult issues by deferring to "the experts." But nobody on Earth is more expert than the individual at answering the crucial question that arises repeatedly in every person's life: What risks am I willing to accept?
Statisticians can tell us the risk associated with skydiving, smoking cigarettes, travelling by airplane or driving a car. What they cannot tell us is whether any particular individual should prefer to accept or reject the risk of those activities. Each individual must consider, and balance, the variables they deem important: How pleasurable will this be? How frightened will I be? How necessary is this? How much will it cost? What alternatives are there? Only the individual is sufficiently expert in each of those areas to reach the proper conclusion for their specific case. If one person decides to travel by airplane while another decides to travel by car, neither of them is wrong. Their values and preferences simply lead them to accept different risks.
Government experts testified at Michael Schmidt's trial that drinking raw milk can expose people to the risk of sickness or death from various pathogens. The people who wish to drink raw milk, or to feed it to their children, are well aware of these risks - the publicity surrounding Mr. Schmidt's prosecution guaranteed that. But the risk of death is actually quite low: No one has died from drinking raw milk in the United States in the past 11 years, even though sales are legal in 26 states.
On the other hand, a study of 8,334 school-aged children in Germany, Austria and Switzerland was published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in August, 2011. It reported that children who drank raw milk were less likely to have asthma and allergies than those who drank pasteurized.
Asthma kills approximately 500 Canadians annually. It is not irrational for parents to want to minimize the risk of asthma for their children. And many people have observed from personal experience that they, or their children, cannot digest pasteurized milk, but have no trouble digesting raw.
So every individual can weigh the risks and decide what he is willing to accept. Some will choose pasteurized, some will choose raw. Neither group is wrong.
What Premier McGuinty fails to understand is that the real experts will speak for themselves, one by one. If expert opinion is to govern, individuals should be free to implement the advice prescribed by their own unique expertise about their own unique circumstances and risk tolerance.
- Karen Selick is the litigation director for the Canadian Constitution Foundation and is Michael Schmidt's lawyer.