Monday, May 31, 2010

Temperance, Tea Parties, and Raw Milk

“Never again will any political party ignore the protests of the church and the moral forces of the state.”
-Wayne B. Wheeler, as quoted in Smithsonian, May 2010*

The godfather of prohibition did not wait until he had a majority behind his cause when he began his Temperance crusade. He did it – according to Daniel Okrent’s illuminating article in the May 2010 issue of Smithsonian – with minorities.

Wheeler focused on elections in districts where just a few percentage points separated the candidates, and mustered the temperance vote behind candidates who promised to support prohibition. His small groups of committed voters often were enough to swing close elections. Wayne Wheeler may not have invented pressure groups, but he was the first to use them effectively to gain a specific political objective in the face of a majority that was either opposed – or indifferent – to his aims.

The Tea Party movement has benefited from Wayne Wheeler’s lessons. Its members are among the most conservative elements of the US population. They represent the political opinion of a minority of the country’s citizens. They are, arguably, a minority even within the Republican Party. Yet this relatively small group of people has had a significant impact on the current round of election primary results – and on the policies of established politicians, including former Presidential candidate and self-proclaimed maverick, John McCain.

Then there’s raw milk.

The great majority of US consumers are either opposed – or indifferent – to legalizing retail sale of raw milk. Yet through the actions of a minority of committed consumers, raw milk can be purchased legally in 29 states. The number may be growing as raw milk advocates continue to refine the lessons taught by Wheeler’s temperance movement.

Earlier this month, supporters of raw milk fought successfully against a Massachusetts effort to place restrictions on raw milk “buying clubs” in that state. The movement also came within a whisker of achieving their goal in Wisconsin. A recent 1bill to legalize raw milk sales in the Dairy State was vetoed by Governor Jim Doyle.

The stated goal of the raw milk movement is to make retail sale of raw milk legal in all 50 states. Despite the occasional setback, they are well on the way to achieving that objective.

And the food safety movement?

Ask any consumer whether he or she supports food safety, and the answer will be “yes.” Why, then, has it been so difficult to achieve reform of our food safety system? I believe that the answer lies in the temperance, tea party and raw milk movements.

An omnibus food safety bill like S510 dilutes the message. It gets bogged down, and ends up taking a back seat to more politically pressing legislation. Eventually, it dies, because food safety isn’t glamorous.

We need to define our goals, rank them by priority, and tackle them one by one, district by district, and state by state.

Is mandatory recall authority for FDA and USDA our number one priority? If so, let’s promote a bill that tackles this single item, and swing our votes in favor of candidates who agree with us.

Do we want USDA to define all raw beef as adulterated if it contains Salmonella, Campylobacter, STEC E. coli, or any other human pathogen? Then we must craft a bill that focuses on this one issue.

Do we want to see true Country of Origin labeling for all food ingredients? That, too, should be a stand-alone bill.

The only way to achieve our food safety legislative goals is one step at a time – just like the temperance movement, just like the Tea Party activists. And just like the raw milk advocates.

Daniel Okrent’s article on Wayne Wheeler and the temperance movement should be required reading for all food safety advocates.

*Okrent, Daniel. “The Man Who Turned Off The Taps.” In: Smithsonian, pp. 30-37. May, 2010.

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