Tag Archives: Wisconsin news

Poison or Panacea?: Denaturalizing the Raw Milk Debate, Part 1

This post is part of a two-part, multi-author series on the raw milk debate in Wisconsin. Stay tuned for Kelly Jakes’ contribution next week.

In America’s Dairyland, the national debate about whether dairy farms should be allowed to sell raw milk to retailers, restaurants, and institutions has been especially contested. Dairy is Wisconsin’s largest industry—nationally, the state is second only to California in production—and is arguably the most cherished and widely recognized marker of its cultural identity. Audiences across the nation associate Wisconsin with the styrofoam cheesehead hats visible at every Packers game, our restaurants are often measured by the quality of their fried cheese curds, and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board even claims the state’s “dairy industry has roots in prehistoric times.”

Raw milk rally in downtown LA. From flickr user cheeseslave.

Raw milk rally in downtown LA. From flickr user cheeseslave.

The raw milk legislation has significant political and ideological ramifications; if it didn’t, we wouldn’t hear about it so frequently in the news. Current state law allows farmers to drink raw milk from cows on their farms, and to sell raw milk on the farm premises. The Wisconsin state Senate will soon be voting on SB 236, which would allow farms to distribute raw dairy products if they adhere to a set of regulatory standards. In 2010, a similar bill  was passed by the full legislature and vetoed by Gov. Jim Doyle; Gov. Scott Walker has expressed solidarity with the powerful dairy lobby that advocates pasteurization and the medical community that rejects raw milk as unsafe, but has not committed to a veto. He’s caught between two key Republican ideals, which, in this case, are on opposing sides. Dairy is the largest industry in the state, and its lobby is both economically and politically powerful—crucial to keeping Wisconsin “open for business.” The raw dairy farms, however, are the very picture of Wisconsin small business, and their supporters demand the free market liberty to buy and eat what they wish.

The debate centers around the delicate balance between a desire for consumer freedom and the necessity of regulation to ensure consumer safety. Public health officials warn that unpasteurized milk is a perfect host for foodborne illnesses like E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella, and large-scale dairy producers fear outbreaks might further the already declining consumption of dairy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims that raw milk is one of the riskiest foods to consume, noting that the invention of pasteurization drastically reduced diseases transmitted by milk without significantly altering its nutritional value. The CDC goes so far as to name pasteurization “one of public health’s most effective food safety interventions.”

On the other hand, raw milk advocates laud unpasteurized milk as a natural food with superior nutritional properties. They decry pasteurization because it kills the enzymes present in milk, properties they believe are vital for the body to absorb calcium and fat. Further, they abhor the synthetic vitamins and chemicals added to pasteurized milk to improve taste, claiming that these substances have been linked to cancer and heart disease. Clearly, neither side is advocating for unsafe practices (or the benefits of Salmonella); in fact, they both lobby on behalf of consumer health and well-being.

In a debate where at least one side’s arguments rely upon notions of the “natural,” we would do well to remember that none of our food practices or values are natural—they are socially, politically, and historically constructed. Historian Melanie DuPuis, author of Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink explains that “since the mid-nineteenth century, milk has been a part of the American social change agenda, from the temperance movement to the Progressive movement, the New Deal, and finally the current movement against genetically engineered foods.” The “milkman” and the “milkmaid” are iconic images of America’s past, and the long-running, celebrity-studded “got milk?” campaign has become a pop culture phenomenon and widely parodied catchphrase. Even the terminology used to describe milk reveals the cultural assumptions about its consumption. The word “milk” signifies to us the pasteurized, packaged liquid produced by cows, not other mammals. Milk as it flows from the cow is labeled “raw,” denoting that its final and preferred form is “cooked”; similarly, we mark other foods as raw—raw fish, raw almonds, raw eggs, raw onions—fish, almonds, eggs, and onions are presumed to be cooked, roasted, fried, or baked in their “natural” state. My point here is that “milk” does not flow naturally from a mother cow to our glass. It is filtered through a series of rhetorical and cultural processes, alongside the agricultural and industrial processes. The debate is not just about milk, but what counts as good, natural, and healthy; it’s about consumer rights and the role of government in food regulation.

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Guerillas in the Mist: The Power of Images in the Penokee Hills Mining Controversy

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. There was a time when rhetorical studies may not have heeded the old maxim, but following the work of Lucaites and Hariman, Finnegan, and countless others over the years, image rhetoric has become an increasingly rich focus of attention—especially in a digital age when more and more folks get their news in ten second chunks of tweets, links, and screen caps and when digital cameras upload instant reports from the cell phones of tens of thousands of people every day.

In the ongoing debate over iron-ore mining in Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills—a debate to which politicians and PR firms, tribal leaders and grass roots ecologists have all added a thousand words or so —a simple handheld camera has become a central figure, swaying public opinion in multiple directions.

Mining operations in the Penokees, along the Gogebic Iron Range, have stirred controversy from the moment they were first proposed. Gogebic Taconite, LLC, the Florida-based company currently testing the range and potentially developing the largest mine in the state of Wisconsin, has fallen under harsh criticism from the towns and tribes surrounding the site, along with several Democratic state politicians and ecologists. All are concerned that the mine will damage fragile ecosystems, infringe on public use of the nearby land, and harm waterways with acid drainage.

These protests did little to sway public opinion, though, or to halt the progress of the mine’s development. Gogebic Taconite moved forward with initial testing and desperate opponents of the mine flocked to the Penokee Hills to demonstrate and disrupt operations. Those sympathetic to the mine saw the demonstrators as hippies and hooligans. Those sympathetic to the protests struggled to sway opinion in a broader, largely indifferent or undecided public.


Bulletproof guard at Penokee Hills

Bulletproof guard at Penokee Hills

Then, in early July, an image hit the airwaves, taken by a visitor to the woods around the testing site. Gogebic Taconite had hired out the services of the Arizona-based private security firm Bulletproof to protect its workers and equipment from unruly protestors and protestors had, in return, captured one of these guards on camera. In a stretch of state-owned land previously open to public use, the image showed a camouflaged man, with his face partially covered and toting an assault rifle. The Bulletproof agent looked more like a special ops solider than a security guard in a publicly accessible place. Suddenly, the opposition to the mine had an opportunity.

The image of the soldier acted as an image vernacular—a visual enthymeme—for those who saw it on their television and computer screens. The striking figure, like something out of a Hollywood movie, played well on the evening news as it garnered more immediate attention than long-winded reports about the complexities of geological survey. This G.I. Joe, this skulking guerilla, found camouflaged and hidden in the simple Wisconsin woods made Gogebic Taconite’s actions seem aggressive and hyperbolic. It was scary for many to see the image and imagine that they, too, might be stalked by a trained soldier with an assault rifle the next time they took a walk in the forest. Suddenly, those indifferent and undecided audiences had a reason to be suspicious of the mine and its motives.

Initially, Gogebic Taconite defended its actions and claimed the Bulletproof guards would remain. However, as the image replayed on TV and computer screens and more and more voices—like that of Democratic Senator Bob Jauch—cried out that the Upper Midwest was no place for mercenaries, the guards were removed. The Arizona-based firm, it turned out, did not actually have a license for such operations.

Now, several months later, the license has been acquired and Gogebic Taconite has announced, to little fanfare, that the Bulletproof guards will eventually return at an undisclosed date. Still, the image has done its work and many more Wisconsinites are both aware of and suspicious of the mining activities now taking place just beyond their backyards.

For many, the mine is now synonymous with aggression, violence, and fear. It’s interesting then, that the images of the protestors have garnered less attention. That is, while the camouflaged soldier appeared around the state, few ever saw the images of the masked and rowdy protestors who first disrupted mining operations and supposedly prompted the Bulletproof hiring in the first place. On June 11, a group of militant protestors filmed themselves rushing a test site, screaming profanities and forcefully seizing one Gogebic Taconite employee’s phone and camera. The protestors were wrapped also like guerillas or freedom fighters, with their faces hidden, and, though unarmed, were unruly and aggressive in their conduct. Those who forwarded the video on conservative websites often described the protestors as “eco-terrorists,” and the conduct and dress of the protestors in the video make such terms and comparisons understandable. The incident led to a felony charge for one protestor, but the video got less public media play, perhaps because of the profanity used and its six-minute length.

As in all such cases, there is not a simple black and white, good and bad dichotomy to be made. Yet many now fear that the tension in the Penokees is still only building, and these images of armed and masked individuals are making the stakes seem more desperate from both sides of the issue. These violent images, reminiscent of scenes from a war zone, are causing the two sides in the debate to feel and self-identify more as two sides in a war. The debate will certainly continue, but the debaters are no longer armed only with their words.

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