August 15, 2007

What Price for Danger?

Mary had a little lamb
and when she saw it sicken,
she shipped it off to Packingtown
and now it's labeled chicken.

-- Anon.

THE NEW YORK TIMES has an interesting story on people who, for reasons I don't entirely understand, prefer to drink raw milk and engage in clever strategems to procure it, despite its general illegality throughout most of the United States. The Times is sympathetic to the plight of raw-milk devotees, even going so far as to tag the story with a headline of: "Should This Milk Be Legal?"

After thinking about it, I have to say I don't see why not, even though I consider drinking the stuff -- or eating some of its by-products, such as fresh raw-milk cheese -- somewhere between excessively risky and downright insane. After all, we do live in a free society and a society that values free markets, so why not let people voluntarily buy the stuff? We let people buy organic foods that have not been treated with germ- and insect-killing pesticides, so why not fully open the market and give people the choices they desire?

That is not to say that I shall be joining the raw-milk devotees any time soon. Raw milk, not being subjected to the glorious and wonderful scientific process of pastuerization, contains bunches of germs. As such, those who drink it run the risk of contracting pestilence and disease each time they a take a sip. To me, raw milk is no different than raw eggs -- another food that scares the life out of me.

I generally eat eggs once a week, when I go to my local watering hole for a good breakfast and get one of their great omelettes, and one thing I like about this place is they cook my eggs the way I want them to do so -- cooked through. If I get fried eggs, I order them over hard and if I get scrambled eggs, I don't want them runny. This is because I want any foul bacteria that may have sprung up in the things to be dead, dead, dead before I eat them, and I'll be damned if I end up getting sick because I just had to have the eggs runny.

Of course, some readers who know may be scratching their heads and saying, "But Bennnnnnnnnnnn! You like your steak Pittsburgh style (black and blue) and you have always been a fan of carpaccio and tartare and sushi and caviar and what have you." This is all true but I take precautions accordingly. When I'm in Los Angeles, I don't order sushi from any place with less than an A health rating, and when I'm at a steakhouse I figure I can trust them to keep their beef in the best possible conditions.

In short, when I do order these products, I know I'm receiving both the benefits of the supplier's expertise -- getting sick at a sushi place doesn't tend to encourage repeat visits -- and the regulations of the local board of health. There is always the possibility I could get sick but I think the risks are minimized. I would argue the precautions with steak, sushi and what have you benefit from having middlemen in the mix. (For instance, steak is aged). But there are few precautions one can take with raw milk, which goes pretty much from the cow to one's lips. The same goes for eggs, which go from their shells to your plate with little in the way of precautionary measures one can take. (A bad egg is a bad egg).

But hey. If I can arguably risk my health ordering rare steak and raw tuna -- even if those risks are small -- I don't see why others shouldn't be able to take somewhat larger risks and "enjoy" raw milk or raw-milk cheese or what have you. We all know what we're getting into, and so if we get sick it is our own fault.

While I can certainly understand the concerns of the food regulators over allowing these sales, I have to say I'd rather have them focus on making sure the industrially-produced food and milk we buy is safe. When people buy factory-processed meat and milk, they expect and deserve that food to be safe. The last thing they want is to hear the factories are operating in conditions that inspired the nursery rhyme noted at the start of this essay. However, if people are willing to take on additional risk and do so with the knowledge of what they're getting into, then why not let them?

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at August 15, 2007 12:01 AM | TrackBack
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