Raw Milk, Tomatoes and Salt, Sniffing Seafood


Tim Sloan/AFP-Getty Images

A couple of recent stories show give present and advance warnings that some issues won't be going away, raw milk chief among them. My recent post on the battle in Massachusetts, a state that does certify raw-milk dairies, to allow off-farm sales elicited heated opinion on both sides of the issue. Anne Mendelson, author of Milk, one of my favorite books of the past few years, points out that there's a spectrum of pasteurization, I assume referring to the longer, low-temperature process that leaves in much more flavor—something I've written about in the past and strongly advocate, as I do buying her book. She's opinionated! And rightly in favor of flavor:

To be blunt: Every time I hear or read any discussion of raw milk in any public forum, I know I can look forward to endless repetitions of a few misleading, simpleminded claims on both sides, with either no attention to or no technical understanding of taste factors (which are my preformed agenda) ... Rawness and pasteurization have nothing to do with the plain fact that milk produced by farmers with sane breeding-and-feeding priorities tastes better than milk cranked out with an eye only to volume. Some of the best milk I've tasted has been raw, and so has some of the worst.

Now there's a battle in Wisconsin where, as Wisconsin native and NPR wise-guy Michael Feldman wrote in a Times op-ed piece, a bill to legalize raw-milk sales with the same kinds of restrictions as in Massachusetts passed the state legislature only to be vetoed by the governor. Feldman doesn't say where he wants raw milk legalized or would feed it to his children, concentrating more on the politics: "While this round of the raw milk may be over, it has left behind a nascent political movement—call it the Teat Party." His crack isn't far off, given that vehement, polarized opinions seem to rule the debate—now extending, as David Sommerstein, an NPR reporter, reports, to New York State too.

Massachusetts? Quiet for now. I'll be headed to City Hall Plaza for a healthful lunch of all-you-can-eat ice cream for numerous national and state dairies at the annual Scooper Bowl, a benefit for the Jimmy Fund, but don't expect to see any raw-milk ice cream.

Tomatoes and salt are of course virtually inseparable, as we can all get hungry thinking about while waiting for this summer's. But an AP news item about a fall in Florida tomato sales is a sobering reminder of what consumer demand can do to a crop: leave it to die on the vine. As the story noted,

For many Florida tomato growers, a terrible season is ending with an impossible choice—harvest their crops at a loss of almost 50 cents on the dollar or cut production costs by leaving the fruit to rot on the vine. Cold temperatures in January and February killed many tomato plants and caused a shortage that pushed the average wholesale price of winter tomatoes to $30 for a 25-pound box by early March. Grocery stores raised their prices in turn, with some charging nearly $4 a pound. Rather than pay up, consumers became used to doing without. Now, as the surviving plants mature, there are more tomatoes than farmers can sell.

This choice, and its possible effect on sometimes enslaved Florida tomato-field workers is bad enough. But the implication I immediately thought of was that once people decide to stop buying something because of prices they might indeed not come back—the justification huge food processors use in their fight against salt regulations. Once somebody tastes chicken-noodle soup without more salt in a can than anybody should eat in a day and goes away, that's a permanently lost customer. So it's everybody or nobody—forget voluntary reductions unless everybody signs on. And nobody in the food business likes the obvious rejoinder—bring on the regulations. We'll have to hope that industry will be made to find lower-sodium alternatives that don't cost anymore—something it's much better-funded to do than growers are to pick tomatoes at a loss.

Back in my own state, the news is that a clamming boat hauled up 10 "mysterious canisters" along with 39,000 pounds of clams south of Long Island. One of them broke open and caused blisters and difficulty breathing in several crew members, who are being treated in New Bedford and Boston while the state department of food and agriculture checks the clams for contamination. Speculation is that the canisters are leftover mustard gas or another blistering agent from World War I. It's a bizarre reminder that oil isn't the only thing that can cause bad smells and worse, as Gulf states try to train seafood safety inspectors to sniff damage from oil. And you thought fish was the only odor you weren't supposed to smell in a fish market!