- The Washington Times - Friday, May 13, 2011

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 late last month by U.S. marshals, a state police trooper and inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was Amish farmer Dan Allgyer of Kinzers, Pa. His so-called “crime” involved nothing more than providing unpasteurized, or raw, dairy milk to eager consumers here in the Washington area.

The sting operation against Mr. Allgyer’s Rainbow Acres Farm has touched a nerve around the country and across the ideological divide. Mr. Allgyer’s customers - including a soccer mom I know - are outraged. Former Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican, took to Twitter recently to blast the raid, calling it a waste of time and resources and mockingly suggesting the FDA would do better to shut down the “many unlicensed lemonade stands” operating around the country. Author David Gumpert, writing at the left-of-center environmental website Grist, wondered whether those who took part in the raid felt “remorse or shame” over this “official effort to deprive people of food.” On May 11, Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, introduced H.R. 1830, the Unpasteurized Milk Bill, which would end the FDA’s ban and permit the sale of raw milk across state lines.

What could possibly be the rationale behind this FDA action? The agency banned the interstate sale of raw milk in 1987. It says raw milk can contain harmful pathogens such as listeria and that pasteurized milk is safer.

No one disputes that pasteurization helps kill harmful pathogens. But where the FDA claims to see a mountain, most states see a molehill. Nearly 25 years after the FDA policy was instituted, just 11 states ban raw milk within their own borders.

Many critics question why the agency concerns itself with raw milk. After all, virtually any food can conceivably contain harmful pathogens - including beef, poultry, pork, seafood, fruits and vegetables. Yet the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) permit the overwhelming majority of these products to be sold in their raw forms. For example, the USDA, which regulates beef, pork and poultry, permits their sale in raw and cooked forms. The FDA, which regulates seafood and eggs, likewise permits those to be sold raw or cooked.

Pathogens are hardly unique to raw food. Just last week, the USDA warned about the risks posed by eating pre-cooked deli meat. The USDA went so far as to urge at-risk populations such as the elderly not to eat sliced turkey, roast beef and other lunch meats unless they first reheat the meat to a “steaming hot” 165 degrees, according to USDA spokesman Neil Gaffney.

Like deli meat, raw foods aren’t some niche market, and buying food in its raw form doesn’t make one part of some underground movement. Anyone who has ever brought home a dozen eggs from a grocer’s shelves has purchased raw food. And once a consumer brings any food home, it’s up to the consumer - not the government - to decide how (or if) he or she wants to cook the food. The notion that the government would ban raw chicken, beef or eggs - or deli meat, for that matter - from store shelves may seem ludicrous. Seen in this context, the current raw milk ban is no less absurd.

Even if consumers were unaware of the risk involved in consuming a raw agricultural product like raw milk or raw beef, FDA and USDA guidelines, along with many state and local health codes, typically require warnings about the potential dangers of consuming raw or undercooked foods. Where a warning will suffice, a ban is inappropriate. The FDA’s extraordinary message when it comes to raw milk, though, is that the American people are too dim to read the very labels the agency requires.

Americans are smarter than that. And many who don’t consume raw milk nevertheless support the right of others to do so. After all, one needn’t choose to eat a raw food like sushi to think it should not be subject to a federal ban.

The FDA’s raid on Dan Allgyer’s farm has united people across party lines who see his right to provide customers with raw milk as part of a larger and expanding battle over the right of people to grow, raise, buy, sell, cook and eat the foods of their own choosing. The FDA, which is seeking a federal court order to bar Mr. Allgyer from offering raw milk to his customers, is increasingly on the wrong side in that battle.

Baylen J. Linnekin is executive director of Keep Food Legal (keepfoodlegal.org).