Raw deal: Jed Riffe's work-in-progress, Germ Wars, ruminates on raw-milk regulation.

Riffe's Raw Milk Germ

Michael Fox March 23, 2010

“There’s so much about this product called milk that we think we know everything about,” declares Jed Riffe with his usual revved-up blend of enthusiasm and amazement. He edifies us about the ubiquitous white stuff in his upcoming documentary Germ Wars, focusing on the David versus Goliath battle between raw milk producers and devotees and the huge “conventional” milk producers and their allies in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Got milk? Then you’re holding a food item that sits squarely at the intersection of big business, science and government regulation. Or bias, depending on your POV.

The doc’s central figure is Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures near Fresno. “Mark is the raw milk evangelist of the United States,” Riffe explains. “He’s going right to health departments and challenging them.” It’s clearly an uphill battle, for Organic Pastures is one of just two regulated raw milk producers in California. Why so few? In an illuminating aside, Riffe confides, “Strauss Dairy employees told us they won’t go into the raw milk market because the regulators will be on top of them looking for any reason to shut them down.”

McAfee’s 400 cows dine on natural grasses on 500 acres, a luxury that contributes to the price tag of $9 a gallon. However, Riffe points out, raw milk has had beneficial effects on children with asthma and Crohn’s disease. The scientific argument, as best as I could follow it, involves live pathogens that are in raw milk. “Microbiologists say this is the future of curing diseases that have not been previously dealt with,” Riffe says. We don’t get these good pathogens in a diet of processed foods, making us vulnerable to various bugs.

I recall that yogurt was seen as kook food as recently as the 1970s, in part because it contained live cultures. So it might seem that a bit of education (and corporate branding and marketing) is all that’s required to make raw milk mainstream. At present, though, governments are being cautious to the point of restrictive about regulating dairies that produce raw milk. Unregulated dairies do step in to fill the demand, but there are risks with their products—as the mothers whose children almost died can attest.

In Riffe’s view, certain interested parties seek to taint and demonize all raw milk because of a few bad apples and their ingrained prejudices. “I’m seeing these very strange parallels between medical marijuana and raw milk,” the East Bay filmmaker says. “There are a thousand cases a year reported of [raw milk] contamination, but there are 1.8 million reported cases of other contamination–such as meat. So why are people talking about ‘terrible drug abusers’ who use and produce raw milk? These [regulators] are so vicious about acting to protect us from ourselves.”

An unabashedly activist filmmaker, Riffe is nonetheless more interested in generating debate than delivering polemics. In Waiting to Inhale, he explored the warring claims about medical marijuana; Ripe for Change (produced by Riffe and directed by Emiko Omori) elucidated the differing costs and benefits of high-yield industrial agriculture and sustainable organic farming.

It’s a bit of a challenge being evenhanded about milk after you’ve seen one of the factory operations at close range, Riffe allows. On one of his visits to Organic Pastures, McAfee took him to the conventional dairy nearby. “There’s nothing but us and the Mexicans in there doing the milking,” Riffe recalls. “They’re actually–and this is legal–injecting the cows with antibiotics.” Why, you might ask, was Riffe’s crew allowed to film such a damning scene? Because it’s all legal, and all regulated.

With shoots in other parts of the country still waiting to be scheduled, and animated sequences explaining the science needing to be created, Riffe doesn’t anticipate finishing Germ Wars until next year. So for a few more months at least, we can pour a tall glass in blissful, harmful ignorance.

Notes From the Underground
Walt Disney announced it will close its ImageMovers Digital (IMD) facility in Marin County early next year after wrapping production on Mars Needs Moms, putting more than a few people out of work. April 5 is the deadline to submit your doc for the April Rough Cuts work-in-progress event. For an application and more info, go to We noted last month that A Serious Man enjoyed a remarkably long run in the Bay Area. An Education bested it by a week, playing 21 weeks before finally matriculating March 11.

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