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Mark Bittman’s Milk Freak-Out Part 2: Do Your Arithmetic

In my last post, I covered a few of the ways Mark Bittman abused evolution and empolyed weasly logic in his recent attempt to generalize his personal health issues with milk. While it came in the form of an opinion piece, I was troubled that the New York Times would publish anything in its pages that relied so heavily on deceptive argument. But Bittman wasn’t content suckling at the teat of psedoscience. He dragged some innocent numbers into the mess as well.

This in a country where as many as 50 million people are lactose intolerant, including 90 percent of all Asian-Americans and 75 percent of all African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Jews…. But in addition to intolerance, thereメs a milk allergy ラ the second most common food allergy after peanuts, affecting an estimated 1.3 million children ラ that can be life-threatening. Other conditions are not easily classified, and I have one of those.

Oh lord. Those numbers look big until you realize:

A) We’re talking about three separate aliments: milk allergy is a potentially life-threatening autimmune disorder, while lactose intolerance is a digestive issue, a pain in the ass, and a highly managable condition. And those “other conditions not easily classified”? Who knows? Apparently they’re very mysterious to everyone but Mark Bittman.

B) We’re talking about enormous populations. Lactose intolerance is an adult problem. Nearly all children (especially under the age of 6) produce milk-digesting enzymes. If we take Bittman’s numbers at face value, and 50 million of us are lactose intolerant, that leaves ~264 million adults in the US who have no problem with fluid milk (including yours truly, who apparently falls into the lucky 25% of Jews who can put sour cream on our latkes).

On the other hand, milk allergies are only common among children. Somewhere around 2.5% of kids have some form of it, but the American Academy of Allergy Asthsma and Immunology states that 80% of kids outgrow it by age 16. With about ~63 million kids under the age of 14 in the US, Bittman’s 1.3 million number could a slight under-estimateラlet’s say 1.6 million. Of those, only 320 thousand will carry their allergy into adulthood.

So of the ~ 313.8 million people in the US, we’re talking about 15% of the adults who shouldn’t drink fluid milk without a pill, but who can still eat cheese and other fermented dairy if they like. An additional 2.5% of the kids and 0.5% of the adults who need to stay away from all dairy. Plus there’s some undefined percent of folks with Bittman’s Distemper for whom dairy causes reflux. Sounds a lot less urgent when you compare apples to apples.

Finally, I wanted to address Bittman’s other, rather stinging oversight:

But what about the bucolic cow on the family farm?…the bucolic cow and family farm barely exist: ‘Given the Kafkaesque federal milk marketing order system, itメs impossible for anyone to make a living producing and selling milk,’ says Anne Mendelson, author of Milk. ‘The exceptions are the very largest dairy farms, factory operations with anything from 10,000 to 30,000 cows, which can exploit the system…’

Again, a little selective quoting goes a long way towards obscuring the facts.

First, he’s right in saying that small family dairies have been suffering. Large dairies have been dominating the milk market in the West and Southwest for some time. But that Federal Milk Order system mentioned above ensures that nearly all the fluid milk a New Yorker like Bittman drinks actually comes from the Northeast, aka Federal Order One. And as of 2006, 38.9% of all fluid milk sold in the Northeast still came from dairies with less that 100 cows. In New York State, that number was 28.9%. 

Those numbers have likely dropped since then: the milk pricing system is hurting small farmers, who are going out of business. But drinking less milk isn’t going to strike a blow for the little guy hereラit’s going to make a bad situation worse. I spoke to New York-state dairy farmer and lawyer Lorraine Lewandrowski, who tweets at @nyfarmer:

Farmers are paid from a “pool” of blended milk prices. Fluid milk (also called Class I milk) has processsors paying the highest price; Class II milk that is made into yogurt pays a lower price. Class III cheese milk pays a still lower price and Class IV (powder and butter) pay the lowest price. So, as milk sales for fluid purposes to NYC have been declining, this drops the price paid to the farmers because of the Federal Marketing Order rules.

Part of the reason small daries are losing ground is that, while Class I fluid milk must be sold locally, Class II-IV can be shipped inter-state or internationally. So mega-dairies in states like Indiana and Ohio (or countries like New Zealand) can exploit economies of scale and ship “non-drinking” milk to 10,000-head dairy farms are able to expoit economies of scale, while the small dairies are being pushed out. This is a problem not just for the farmers, but for the  are making lots of ice cream, mass-market cheese, yogurt and more exotic milk powders and additives alongside fluid milk, which suffers from major quirks 

The USDA reports that fluid milk consumption has has dropped in the past decade, while cheese & yogurt eating has gone way up, indicating that fluid milk is perhaps not a major dietary issue compared with other dairy products.
Along the way, he pulls in some highly dubious “we’re not evolved to drink milk” arguments, and conflates lactose intolerance with other milk sensitivities and allergies, as well as conflating adult and children’s nutrition. While I absolutely think we should be discussing what we feed our kids and ourselves, especially with the support of government money, I think both Bittman and the NYT can do better than to shoot off the cuff, and expand one man’s acid reflux into a prescription for everyone’s diet. –WF

Photo by Skip the Pie

Will Fertman

Will Fertman is a writer and food business entrepreneur living in Berkeley, CA. A former staff writer and web manager for culture, Will wrote the Ruminations column for the magazine and spent lots of time wrangling social media. Today Will is the Director of Content and co-founder at the monger, a data-driven platform for the specialty food industry, supplying accountable information and transactions for producers, distributors, retailers, foodservice and consumers.

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