Should the public be protected from lethal consequences of others’ lifestyle choices?
CHARLESTON, West Virginia––Raw milk enthusiasts in the West Virginia legislature first cheered after opening a legal loophole through which unpasteurized milk may be sold, then puked after sampling raw milk shared around by House of Delegates member Scott Cadle.
Raw milk enthusiasts, in West Virginia as elsewhere, believe consumers should have the right to drink milk that may kill or harm them, their families, and their guests.
WV Supreme Court on pit bulls
Echoing the views of pit bull owners worldwide, the West Virginia Supreme Court holds a similar perspective on possession of pit bulls, ruling in June 2015 against breed-specific legislation and in favor of a “one free bite” standard even for pit bulls who maul children.
One might presume that risk-taking and non-intervention in others’ choices to accept and inflict risks are as ingrained in the West Virginia culture as coal mining and country music.
Raw milkers, pit bull pushers, and extreme libertarians of other stripes might hope that the West Virginian attitude will echo as far and as loudly as country music.
Yet, on two other animal-related issues recently before West Virginia legislature, the lawmakers took distinctly anti-libertarian positions.
The West Virginia legislature in 2014 voted overwhelmingly in favor of tightly restricting private possession of exotic wildlife, including large carnivores whether native or indigenous to the state, and both venomous and constricting snakes.
“Right to farm”
Further, in March 2016, only days after approving the sale of raw milk under controlled conditions, the West Virginia legislature killed a bill that would in effect have allowed farmers to dodge almost any humane or environmental legislation. The West Virginia legislature then reinforced the existing law against cockfighting.
“Our allies in the legislature,” blogged Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle on March 14, 2016, “ran out the clock and blocked an effort to add a vague and overreaching ‘right to farm’ provision to the West Virginia constitution.”
“Modern farming & ranching”
Introduced on February 25, 2016 by Robert Karnes, chair of the West Virginia Senate Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, Senate Joint Resolution 14 would have submitted to West Virginia voters a proposed state constitutional amendment saying, “The right of farmers and ranchers to engage in modern farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state. No laws shall be enacted which abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agriculture technology, modern livestock production and ranching practices.”
The “right to farm” bill appeared to be chiefly directed at protecting “factory farmers,” Pacelle said, “from any restrictions on agricultural production – from extreme confinement to the use of antibiotics to manure discharge.”
Cockfighters also endorsed Senate Joint Resolution 14, in the belief, Pacelle wrote, that “a ‘right to farm’ provision would even protect them from any legislative maneuvers to criminalize rearing cockfighting birds.”
However, Pacelle continued, “Just minutes before the legislative session closed, lawmakers gave final approval to a bill [by state delegate John Overington] to strengthen the state’s existing law, and make it a crime to gamble at or take a minor to a cockfight. Fighting animals is illegal in West Virginia,” Pacelle noted, “but the state’s weak law has hardly proved a deterrent to the state’s animal fighting enthusiasts.”
West Virgina Governor Earl Ray Tomblin now must decide whether to sign the reinforced anti-cockfighting bill, put before him two weeks after the raw milk bill.
While there appears to have been no hard evidence that the raw milk shared by legislators was actually the cause of their illness, the incident recalled Henry David Thoreau’s 1857 remark that “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk,” after the milk has allegedly been diluted with pond water.
The raw milk bill allows “shared animal ownership,” or “herd-sharing,” as “a legal way for residents to consume raw milk,” explained John Johnson of the food industry online periodical Food Dive. “All other raw milk sales are still illegal in the state. The ‘responsible’ party in the shared animal ownership agreement is unable to distribute, sell, or resell raw milk on the market, so raw milk won’t be appearing on grocery store shelves in West Virginia,” as it already does in 12 states.
Appeasing public health advocates
“These agreements,” now allowed in five states, “could become more commonplace,” Johnson predicted, as a way “for state governments to permit citizens to drink raw milk. By not allowing direct sales in grocery stores by the producers in the agreements,” Johnson wrote, “legislators appease public health advocates who are concerned about safety.”
Currently, 33 states allow raw milk sales in some form; 17 states do not. U.S. federal law in effect since 1938 prohibits the sale of unpasteurized milk across state lines.
3% of the milk, 90%+ of disease outbreaks
Raw milk appears to account for less than 3% of total fluid milk sales in the U.S., but currently accounts for more than 90% of the disease outbreaks directly associated with milk.
Vegans have long argued that drinking any milk may be unhealthy, as well as unethical from an animal rights perspective. Vegetarians, though most continue to use some milk products, tend to consume less than most other Americans, for a combination of reasons associated with personal health and animal welfare.
In general, because farms selling raw milk tend to be smaller, offering cows more pasture time and individual care, vegetarians often favor drinking raw milk.
The minority of vegetarians who are also “raw foodists” tend also to believe that pasteurization makes milk less nutritious, or at least not as palatable, a belief shared with many other milk-drinkers, who often hold with almost religious fervor that milk is best when consumed straight from the cow.
But hard data shows no measureable loss of nutrients resulting from pasteurization, and no credible support for the notion that raw milk is healthier.
Reviewing “Nonpasteurized dairy products, disease outbreaks, and state laws, U.S. 1993-2006,” in the March 2012 edition of the medical journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, researchers A.J. Langer, T. Ayers, and J. Grass found unpasteurized dairy products implicated in 73 of 121 foodborne outbreaks attributed to contaminated milk.
Of the 56 outbreaks involving fluid milk, 82% involved raw milk.
Outbreaks more than quadrupled
Then a national trend toward liberalizing restrictions on raw milk sales gained momentum.
“From 2007 to 2012, there were 81 outbreaks reported––an average of 13 per year that led to nearly 1,000 illnesses and 73 hospitalizations,” learned National Public Radio food correspondent Abby Wendle from Centers for Disease Control & Prevention data in February 2015. “That’s compared with just three outbreaks a year, on average, from 1993 to 2006.
“The greatest jump,” Wendle explained, “was in outbreaks of severe diarrhea, often the result of drinking raw milk tainted with campylobacter-infected feces.”
Campylobacter was implicated in 54% of the disease outbreaks associated with raw milk in the 1993-2006 time frame. Salmonella bacteria was implicated in 22%, enterohemorrhagic e-coli in 13%, brucella (causing brucellosis, also known as undulant fever) in 4%, listeria in 4%, and shigella in 3%.
“Before 1938, an estimated 25% of all foodborne and waterborne disease outbreaks in the USA were associated with milk,” recalled co-authors W.L. Claeys, S. Cardoen, and G. Daube in “Raw or heated cow milk consumption: review of risks and benefits,” published in Food Control 2013.
“Between 1880 and 1907, 29 milkborne outbreaks were reported on average each year in the USA. With the adoption of pasteurization in 1938, milkborne diseases dropped to only 46 outbreaks during the 19-year period from 1973 to 1992, corresponding to an average of 2.4 outbreaks each year.”
The verdict on pits
Similar data has accrued pertaining to pit bulls, kept by barely 5% of dog owners, but accounting for more than 50% of fatal dog attacks in every ten-year time frame since 1833, more than 60% since 1982, and more than 70% since 2007. Pit bulls have also consistently accounted for comparable percentages of disfiguring attacks, and have inflicted more than 95% of the documented fatal attacks on other animals since 2013.
But on June 16, 2015 the West Virginia Supreme Court undid existing local legislation in communities throughout the state which had held pit bulls to more stringent safety standards than other dogs.
Explained Huntington Herald Dispatch reporter Curtis Johnson, “The case stems from a March 31, 2014 dog bite that injured an 8-year-old neighbor. The pit bull, known as Tinkerbell, bit as the boy reached for a ball he had been passing with other children. Treatment required 14 stitches to the child’s face. A circuit judge found the dog’s owners, Michael and Kim Blatt, innocent of harboring a vicious dog, but determined one bite was sufficient evidence to deem Tinkerbell vicious. The high court’s 3-2 majority disagreed.”
The West Virginia Supreme Court majority held that Wayne Circuit Judge Darrell Pratt “relied upon a breed-specific presumption not found in state code,” Johnson continued, “which would allow a pit bull’s death based solely upon the belief its breed is inherently vicious.”
Kicked issue to the legislature
Wrote Justice Brent Benjamin, for the majority, “It is apparent to us that the Legislature is far better equipped than the judiciary to consider the adoption of a breed-specific presumption applicable to (state law. The Legislature is capable of scrutinizing the plethora of scientific and statistical evidence.”
Dissenting, Johnson wrote, “Chief Justice Margaret L. Workman and Justice Allen H. Loughry II disagreed with saving Tinkerbell, but concurred with new case law set forth by the majority. It states no longer must a judge convict the owner of knowingly harboring a vicious dog to order the canine’s death.”
Wrote Loughry in a dissenting opinion, “The majority insultingly suggests that aggressive dog behaviors are normal, and even desirable by humans.’ Really? I am reasonably certain that victims of dog attacks or bites, including our subject victim and his family, would not find aggressive dog behaviors desirable. Quite frankly, the majority goes too far by essentially suggesting that all dogs bite and folks should just expect it, accept it, and move on.”
The Blatts had adopted Tinkerbell in August 2013 from River City Bully Buddies, a rescue group which had pulled him from an animal control shelter in May 2012.
The Dangerous Wild Animals Act
While the West Virginia Supreme Court overturned breed-specific presumptions in local ordinances and case law, then kicked the matter to the state legislature, the state legislature had barely one year earlier passed the Dangerous Wild Animals Act.
This act directed a board appointed by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture to produce a list of animals who are inherently unsafe to keep as pets, and therefore may not be kept in West Virginia except in accredited zoos.
The board eventually adopted the same list of prohibited animals as neighboring Ohio, including crocodiles, hyenas, lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, bears, alligators, elephants, komodo dragons, nonhuman primates other than lemurs, and snakes that are six feet or longer.