Monday, December 2, 2013

Raw Milk Under Seige in Foxboro

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, December 2, 2013

By Bill Gouveia

            Got milk?  Was it from the farm or the super market?

            If the Foxboro Board of Health adopts regulations currently under consideration, raw milk might not be available any longer in Foxboro.  Lawton Farms, the one operating dairy farm in Foxboro and Norfolk County, says they already come under existing state rules and laws.  They claim the proposed extra layer of regulations would drive them out of business.

            While they have not yet publicly discussed or considered the controversial milk measures, the BOH has definitely gotten something they seem to have been seeking:  A lot of attention. 

Their recent public hearing on the proposal had to be indefinitely postponed last week when an overflow crowd showed up to participate.  When the meeting room capacity was exceeded, largely due to the presence of Lawton Farm supporters, officials had to cancel and plan for a larger meeting in the future.

No one seems to doubt supporters of the new regulations are motivated by an honest desire to protect the health of the public.  But there is a great deal of controversy over the health benefits and problems associated with raw milk, and it is unclear in the minds of many whether local regulation is the answer.

Raw milk advocates point out Massachusetts state regulations provide extensive protection already.  They question the need for an overlapping set of local rules.  Additionally, the proposed local regs would tremendously increase the reporting responsibilities of farm operators.  According to Terri Lawton, one of the farm’s owners, this in particular could force the farm to close.

This is not the place to get into the complicated issues of milk (now there’s a sentence I never thought I would write).  There is no doubt the government has an interest in regulating the production of this very common product in the name of safety and general health.  At the same time, much evidence exists to indicate raw milk has certain health benefits and people want the right to purchase it – short of buying their own cow (which no doubt would violate other board of health regulations).

            There appears to be no sensible reason for the local Foxboro board to jump into this issue in the manner being proposed.  While there have been incidents at the Lawton Farm that have brought in regulators over the years, none have risen to a level requiring an additional layer of local bureaucratic regulation.

            Of course, you are talking about an elected board that not long ago passed a rule requiring permits for all bake sales held in town.  It is commendable to see them being aggressive in protecting the health of the citizens they serve, rather than sitting back and waiting for problems to happen.  But sometimes officials can get caught up in trying to do too much.  This may be one of those instances.

            In my mind, this is why the Board of Health in every community should be an appointed board with a professional working with them.  While electing people is certainly democratic, it is not always practical when the positions involved require certain skills and experience. 

            That is not meant to denigrate in any way the capabilities of Foxboro’s Board of Health members.  It is merely meant to point out regulators are usually hired or appointed, not elected.  Your ability to get votes should not be the reason you wind up setting health regulations.

            BOH member Eric Averdon said recently his board should evaluate if they want to continue to allow unpasteurized milk to be sold in Foxboro and “if we decide to continue to allow it, whether and how to regulate this.”  This sounds a tad arrogant.  While Massachusetts is one of three states that allows both local and statewide regulation in this area, some would see this as a reach for a local board. 

            Just because something receives a lot of support does not make it right.  No matter how many people either back or oppose these regulations, the final decision has to be made based upon safety and the public interest.

            Yet at the same time, there are enough real problems in Foxboro without creating new ones.  At press time, local cows could not be reached for comment.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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