Raw Milk, Fake News and How Minds Aren't That Different from Stomachs - Fitness Week on BTR


Television’s Stephen Colbert. Photo by David Shankbone.

If anyone ever needed a reason why the viewers of The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart are among the most “consistently misinformed” audience on television (just a hair ahead of Fox News viewers) according to a recent observation made by PolitiFact, here’s a good one.

To begin, I should admit that I’ve been a dedicated viewer of both shows for years. As for The Daily Show, I’ve been watching for over a decade– since I was about 13 years old. Never in that span have I considered myself a “stoned slacker,” which is how Bill O’Reilly has described the show’s primary demographic in the past.

Recreational drug use aside, I am of the median age and gender of the show’s audience–a generation of young, moderate liberals who came to political consciousness during the Bush Administration by relying on Stewart’s humor to see us through those dark yet formative years.

To Stewart’s credit, I’ve never once relied on him or Colbert to provide me with journalism, or you know, actual, unbiased information. That is to say I’ve never done so consciously. Just like your average faithful viewer of The O’Reilly Factor, watching The Colbert Report only serves to affirm my ideological predispositions while I watch their cross-bearers in Washington fall spectacularly short of fulfilling them.

Where political humor, I trust, will never poison me, for matters of real, bodily importance I tend to seek council only from men in white suits in doctors’ offices, or maybe family members with equivalent educational credentials; definitely not pundits or comedians of any sort.

Unlike many Americans cursed with an inept nutritional knowledge, I lucked out by having some extended family members in the health industry to supply me with reliable fitness tips. My sister, a chiropractor who before finishing grad school took several courses in nutrition, spends most family gatherings trying to convince me to quit drinking milk.

To put her case briefly, I should never drink milk because of the added growth hormones, antibiotics, and steroids that are fed to the cows that produce milk. It’s the rationale for why anyone shops at Whole Foods. It’s also the part of why in this day and age, when the Department of Agriculture is caught ‘red-handed’ in cahoots with the dairy farming industry encouraging Domino’s Pizza to use extra cheese, it’s considered hypocritical to their anti-obesity message.

Complicated sciences and minor scandals aside, the apex of her argument usually stems from the rhetorical question: “Why would an adult animal drink milk from another adult animal?” Imagining how I would siphon refreshment from a cow’s teet makes me cringe and, upon hearing this question, I’ll usually give up drinking milk in all of its forms for three weeks.

It’ll also give me a reason to post videos and articles discussing nutrition on her Facebook wall and ask her what she thinks. In which case, how odd it is that I should be reaffirmed in my dietary choices by my second favorite fake news show?

Members of the Colbert Nation may remember this episode. A little over a year ago, The Colbert Report ran a segment on a melodramatic government raid that took place at a raw foods co-op in Venice, California during late June of 2010.

You can catch the full clip of the segment here.

It’s difficult to discern exactly whom the clearly slanted but humorous piece takes sides with. On the one hand, it was edited in the same sensationalism as an episode of Hannity’s America on the “hoax” of Global Warning. Given the show’s typical satire of right-wing talking points leading up to the 2010 midterm congressional elections, government officials were, at first, depicted as thugs, raiding farmers with drawn-firearms SWAT tactics and (as was probably quite accurate) making a big deal over nothing.

Needless to say, the FDA bans the interstate commerce of raw milk while the legal ability to sell it varies from state to state. Curiously, despite the government raid on Rawesome Foods last summer, the state of California does allow the sale of raw milk—something not mentioned in the segment. And why? That would totally ruin the joke in the third act.

The segment’s proceeding interview with former Federal Drug Administration official, David Acheson (at about 3:50 or so) explains what any average American, myself included, would assume: the government bans unpasteurized milk because it is bad for you. Why? Because it can give you E. coli and dysentery, duh! How could these maniacal, bearded Californians be selling people such dangerous products? I know this is a “fake news” show, but their crass villainy sounds obvious enough to me, isn’t this right?

A PSA by the Department of Agriculture on the health risks posed by consuming raw milk. Image courtesy of the USDA. For a larger version you can actually read, click here.

Depending on whom you ask—well, not exactly.

I thought posting this video on my sister’s Facebook wall would do to her ideologies what sending a YouTube video of adorable kittens would do for her heartstrings. Not so. As she would explain to me and I would later affirm with my own research, the owners of the Rawesome Food outlet may have a point here. That is, if you’re the kind of person that thinks milk in any form is good for you.

Since the segment aired last summer, various blogs, Internet and print media outlets have visited questions over the nutritional value of raw milk, which happens to be pretty substantial.

In an interview with The New York Times, famed farmer’s market entrepreneur Nina Planck espoused the healthy attributes of raw milk, among them being high quantities of vitamins that are otherwise removed from industrial milk in pasteurizing processes standardized by the FDA Raw milk also contains important enzymes such as lactase, which helps absorb calcium better than industrial milk.

Planck is not the only big-name foodie to get behind raw milk. Those entrepreneurs seeking to offer Americans raw milk in states that allow it even have a name and something of an online community brewing. David Gumpert, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Battle Over Food Rights, gives “food-resisters” tips on surviving raids and rails against the insipidness of the government’s food policy via his syndicated blog on grist.com.

In his blog, he also keeps his readers up to date on recent raids (the latest occurred in Washington D.C. this past May) and routine accounts of the government’s heavy-handed enforcement policies. Many of these tales of tyranny run along the same lines of humorous details that the The Colbert Report segment highlighted. For instance, one episode details FDA officers busting Amish farmers for trying to deliver raw products out of state.

To the credit of Rawesome Foods and many establishments like them, the co-op was a members-only club at which to apply, members had to sign an agreement that they understood that Rawesome products did not come with FDA approval and that there were subsequent risks involved. In other words, there was no deception. These people weren’t being poisoned unknowingly by massive corporate autonomies, as is the necessary reason for most regulation. They were merely making informed, albeit risky, choices. This information was not mentioned in The Colbert Report segment, but I guess that’s what I get for watching fake news.

Despite the ridiculous methods of enforcement, the war over milk rages as on as rebellious resisters with their meddling members-only clubs offering milk straight from the cow and right from under the noses of worried bureaucrats. In revisiting the clip from The Colbert Report and my sister’s compounded advice on my dairy consumption, one maxim has become abundantly clear: I should know what I’m putting in my body.

In the age of Google, smartphones and bar-code readers, nutritional information is more accessible than it has ever been to the everyday consumer. While finding precisely what the contents of any edible product are can be tricky and largely contradictory–as has been demonstrated by the controversy over raw milk– it shouldn’t discourage people from deciding for themselves. Further, it’s unfair to readily dismiss those for their dietary choices, however unorthodox they may be. From what I can tell, these so-called “food-resisters” probably have far healthier diets than I do.

Perhaps this maxim goes beyond fruit and vegetables, or pasteurized and raw milk, and deeper into the larger realm of everything that we consume—specifically, information. It’s quite remarkable that a comedy program could break open a discussion on public health and private discretionary choices. Still, after watching their segment, I was left with an impression that was questionable if not false. Even for a program I don’t consciously trust to give me real news, I still assumed the message being transmitted (that raw milk is bad for you) was true. Otherwise, how else would the jokes work?

They wouldn’t. The joke has to be that raw milk is bad for you and these crazy right-wingers are wrong because, well, that speaks to my political predispositions as a Colbert Report viewer.

For entertainment’s sake, I can not say the segment left me unamused, but is amusement a worthy enough excuse to underhandedly accept the set up for punchlines as reliable knowledge? Similarly, is it better to pretend you’re eating healthy by relying on the words of those you trust to reinforce your current dietary habits, or is it better to find information from trusted resources to challenge and inform those practices? Can the same not be said of digesting information to forge your beliefs?

How strange it is that the same perils and rewards that go with cautiously deciding what to feed one’s stomach are not far departed from those of feeding one’s mind.