Monday, August 12, 2013

Uncertainty and Harm: Goat Milk and the Precautionary Principle

From Maine, a curious tale of a young mother and her tussle with state officials. Her baby didn't much cotton to store-bought formula, so she swapped in a goats' milk confection. Her doctor reports this to DHHS and wouldn't you know it, they threaten to take her child away.

I'm still a little fuzzy on the arguments behind raw milk bans and the like, so I'll try to see if I can reason my way to this reaction from more elementary principles. Let's assume that there's some risk of harm that travels with consuming dairy products. When you combine that with illness severity, you can estimate roughly what the uncovered cost of raw milk is. If you're a fan of unintentional hilarity, you can check the FDA's site here to discover that between 1993 and 2006, a thirteen year period, well, let's let them use their own words:
[B]etween 1993 and 2006 more than 1500 people in the United States became sick from drinking raw milk or eating cheese made from raw milk. In addition, CDC reported that unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illness and results in 13 times more hospitalizations than illnesses involving pasteurized dairy products.
See the dodge? See how to lie with statistics? We've got 1500+ folks who "became ill", then they moved right on to talking about hospitalizations, hoping that you'll assume that all those roughly 100 folks a year ended up in the ICU rather than with a case of the hershey squirts or upended over a porcelain throne barking their groceries to the Great God Ralph. I especially love that last bit, as if the base rates associated for pasteurized milk is something to incite terror in the great masses of men. Thirteen times close to zero is still pretty close to zero, people.

And really, that's like 115 people a year. Even if these were fatalities, and they're not, the numbers are still too small to be reported by the CDC. Link.

So here we've got a known problem: the baby can't handle store-bought formula, and we've got an unknown solution: homemade goat milk formula (and recall that the risk priors for raw milk are for cow's milk), so how does the cost-benefit calculus employed here justify coercive correction? What's the moral intuition?

For this to really stick, we'd need some way of showing that the mother (and by extension, all mothers) are systematically biased when it comes to risk assessment, that state officials are more accurate when it comes to dispassionately assessing the relative risk-adjusted costs and benefits of different menu options. This either assumes supernatural knowledge on the part of these officials or it relies on the moral warrant that children are the responsibility not of those who whelped them, but to the whole of the democracy. If that's the case, it's a moral warrant that seems entirely at odds with the everyday practice of moral behavior. Should children be removed from homes with pools? From homes with antifreeze in the garage? From homes with dogs? The CDC link above has a list of causes of infant mortality, maybe the state has an interest at minimizing all those risks, consequences be damned.

If this idea of the precautionary principle is to really have any meaningful teeth to it, and if you agree with the notion of equality in the eyes of the law, no one is innocent. No home is safe. If, on the other hand, you hold that the purpose of commercial regulation is to safeguard against manifest risk and extant fraud, you'll probably agree that these Maine officials and those of their ilk are a clowder of tax-funded bullies picking on a teen mother.

But then again, there's very little that has to do with children that could be considered euvoluntary. That's reason #1 to be wary of political speech that ever once references the little tykes.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?