Raw Milk and the Rise of ‘Food Freedom’
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Raw Milk and the Rise of ‘Food Freedom’

Interest in unpasteurised dairy is soaring despite health risks, thanks to lifestyle influencers, commentators and politicians promoting its consumption

By SARA ASHLEY O’BRIEN
Fri, Jun 7, 2024 8:00amGrey Clock 7 min

Dairy farms have been in decline for decades, but you wouldn’t know it looking at Mark McAfee’s. Based in Fresno, Calif., his business has grown substantially since 2020, he said, and is on track to hit $30 million in sales this year.

His company, Raw Farm, is the largest supplier of unpasteurised milk in California. Gwyneth Paltrow is a fan of the brand, whose products can be found at the specialty grocers Erewhon and Sprouts. Podcast hosts and social-media personalities have fuelled demand, claiming that raw milk is creamier, more nutritious and easier to digest than pasteurised dairy.

“Influencers have really driven us in the last four years to new levels we never imagined,” McAfee said in an interview.

The Food and Drug Administration has long warned Americans against drinking unpasteurised milk, which can expose consumers to salmonella, listeria and E. coli, and has the potential to cause rare and serious disorders. The FDA has said raw milk is not healthier than pasteurised and, in fact, raises the risk for harm. Selling raw milk is legal in California and more than half of U.S. states, but its sale across state lines has long been banned by the FDA, which warns that drinking unpasteurised milk can cause bacterial outbreaks that have resulted in miscarriages, stillbirths, kidney failure and death. It can be particularly unsafe for children, the elderly, immunocompromised people and pregnant women, the agency says. This year, the FDA warned about the risk of bird-flu contamination amid an outbreak that has infected dairy cows. Twenty states have laws on the books prohibiting raw milk in some form.

But in many corners of the internet, raw milk is presented as healthy, wholesome and cool. Some people brag about obtaining it in states where retail sales are illegal. “I have a dealer,” said Texas-based influencer Lauryn Bosstick on her popular podcast, “The Skinny Confidential Him & Her.” In an email, Bosstick said “I love raw milk.” As a guest on the show, Paltrow , who lives in raw-milk-friendly California, said she drinks raw cream in her morning coffee and that Raw Farm is her favourite.

Others have turned their preference into a political stance, a way of rallying against what they see as government overreach. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has voiced support for “food freedom”—a term that has come to encompass everything from intuitive eating to diets that the FDA has deemed dangerous. He has expressed solidarity with Amos Miller, a Pennsylvania-based Amish farmer whose business has run afoul of raw-milk regulations and faced consequences as a result. Kennedy said he “only drank raw milk” while on a 2022 panel at a conference for anti vaccine nonprofit Children’s Health Defense, which he chairs. His running mate, Nicole Shanahan , recently posted a photo on Instagram in which she smiles while hugging two people at a farmers’ market selling raw milk.

“Mr. Kennedy believes that consumers should be able to decide for themselves what foods to put into their bodies,” a spokesperson for Team Kennedy said in an emailed statement.

Trust in the U.S. government and American media are at near-record lows, driving people to seek alternative authorities and information sources. For many, influencers and self-styled experts have filled the void. As a growing number of them tout products that could cause harm, people across the country are drinking it up.

Farmers Against Pasteurisation

The federal government set its first safety standards for dairies in 1924, introducing regulations that states could adopt on a voluntary basis. This followed many disease outbreaks linked to milk, including typhoid fever, scarlet fever and tuberculosis. Pasteurisation, a heating process that kills harmful bacteria such as E. coli, listeria and salmonella, became the norm as dairy farmers and sellers sought to prevent food borne illnesses.

But soon a group of dissenters emerged, arguing that pasteurisation stripped milk of its nutrients. That cohort included the owner of the Monrovia, Calif.-based farm Alta Dena, which would become a major supplier of raw milk.

Unpasteurised milk appealed to the counterculture and became linked with the growing natural and organic food movement of the 1970s. But following various outbreaks, legal challenges and a 1987 FDA ban on interstate raw milk sales that remains in effect today, Alta Dena stopped selling unpasteurised products and sold its farm. The Alta Dena brand exists today but sells pasteurised milk and other dairy products. McAfee’s farm, founded in 1998 as Organic Pastures, stepped up to grab its market share.

“That really helped us to establish our business,” McAfee said. But he has run into some trouble. In 2008, McAfee and the company pleaded guilty to misbranding raw milk as pet food in order to sell it across state lines. A court order two years later demanded that the company cease selling its raw-milk products for any purpose between states and stop making drug claims about its products, unless authorised by the FDA. In 2023, the Justice Department alleged that Raw Farm had violated the court order by selling raw-milk cheese across state lines and claiming it could cure, mitigate, treat or prevent disease. Raw Farm agreed to settle the dispute. Now, the Justice Department is seeking to enforce the settlement following recent outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli it says were linked to Raw Farm’s raw milk and cheddar cheese ; Raw Farm denies there was E. coli in its cheddar cheese product. Raw Farm’s raw milk is only available in California; its unpasteurised cheese is sold beyond California, as well as a raw-milk pet food kefir.

In the early aughts, Mary McGonigle-Martin started seeing raw milk at her local health-food store in Temecula, Calif., where signs framed the dairy product as a cure for asthma, allergies and other ailments. Skeptical at first, she went to Organic Pastures’ website to learn more. “They talked about how they tested every batch of milk and they never found a pathogen,” she said. She decided the milk was safe for her 7-year-old son to drink. “It was very naive of me,” she said.

McGonigle-Martin’s son Chris became severely ill after drinking the milk for a couple of weeks. He was hospitalised, required blood transfusions, put on a ventilator and diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a rare but serious kidney condition. Though Chris survived, McGonigle-Martin and another family whose child became sick sued McAfee and Sprouts for negligence and product liability, claiming that their children suffered from E. coli. The parties settled for an undisclosed amount in 2008. McGonigle-Martin has since become an activist, working to warn parents about the risks for children.

McGonigle-Martin said she believes that farmers who advocate for raw milk have good intentions but are ultimately spreading what amounts to misinformation.

Meanwhile, interest is way up. GetRawMilk.com, which aims to help consumers find local suppliers, has experienced a surge in views in recent months. Its creator said in an email that the site’s traffic has been “hitting new all-time highs,” with nearly 97,000 visitors in May.

The Influencer Effect

At the upscale Los Angeles grocery store Erewhon, a 64-ounce jug of McAfee’s Raw Milk retails for $11.99. Each bottle carries a warning: “Raw milk and raw milk dairy products may contain disease-causing microorganisms.” According to the label, those at highest risk of disease include “newborns and infants; the elderly; pregnant women.”

The pandemic brought “explosive” growth to the business, McAfee said. “People got smart and they said, ‘Well, what is the most immune-system-building food on earth?’” One study, published by the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal in 2017, found that unpasteurised dairy products were associated with roughly 840 times more illnesses and 45 times more hospitalisations than pasteurised products.

On social media, where “What I Eat in a Day” videos are popular, doctors, nutritionists and lifestyle personalities have praised raw-milk consumption. “This is why you should be drinking raw milk,” says Paul Saladino, a doctor who once sold people on his “Carnivore Diet,” in a video on Instagram, where he has two million followers. In an April TikTok , the “Skinny Confidential” host Bosstick describes the “bowl of meat” she eats “probably twice a day,” crediting it for weight loss and hair growth. “I also do raw milk,” she says.

Tieghan Gerard, creator of the popular food blog Half Baked Harvest, incorporated raw milk into an iced peach-lemonade matcha latte recipe. Hannah Neeleman , a pageant queen and influencer whose @BallerinaFarm Instagram account has nine million followers, posts videos of herself and her children drinking raw milk directly from the udders of their cows in Utah. The farm she shares with her husband is slated to open Ballerina Farm Dairy in the coming weeks, Neeleman said. It will sell raw milk, among other unpasteurized dairy products, in the state.

Meanwhile, commentators for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ website Infowars have downplayed the risks of raw milk , chalking up warnings to collusion between the FDA and “Big Milk.”

McAfee says Raw Farm does not pay any influencers or celebrities to promote its products, but it ships free products to roughly 350 influencers a year. He says many more have been promoting products they paid for themselves. “They go crazy telling you how delicious it is,” he said.

Bill Marler, a personal injury attorney in Washington state focused on food borne illness cases, has sued McAfee on several occasions, including while representing McGonigle-Martin. “They’re a big player and Mark is a proselytiser,” he said.

Another big advocate is the Weston A. Price Foundation, an organisation founded in 1999 with the stated goal of bringing back “nutrient-dense” foods to Americans.

Sally Fallon Morell, its founding president, owns a farm in Maryland that sells raw milk for pets. Maryland state law prohibits the sale of raw milk for human consumption. She claims there is no scientific reason to oppose raw milk and offers alternative explanations for the few instances the FDA has said people died or became ill from drinking it. Through her Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund and her website Real Milk, she advocates for the consumption of unpasteurised dairy and criticises federal food regulation and nutrition guidelines.

“We’re giving our children skim milk, processed foods, loaded with additives, industrial seed oils, lots of sugar,” she said. “We’re at the 11th hour, and things have got to change or there’ll be no people,” she added, calling it a “genocide” what children are being fed in school.

Her foundation made it a mission to make unpasteurised milk legal in every state . According to the foundation, raw milk can be obtained in 46 states, through retail or direct sales, herd share agreements or as pet food. According to the FDA, only 30 states can legally sell raw milk for human consumption.

On an October episode of the organisation’s “Wise Traditions” podcast, Fallon Morell spoke about Nevada, where raw milk for pets must be marked with dye. She shared a desire to “get them to lift that.”

Soon, McAfee said, he’ll be selling frozen raw milk labeled as pet food in all 50 states, using a label he said the FDA approved. The FDA did not confirm whether it had approved the label, but a spokesperson said that if the agency becomes aware of the diversion of raw milk labeled for pets into the human food supply, it will take the appropriate action.

“The influencers, all day long, they say, ‘I identify as an animal, get this stuff, this stuff is awesome,’” said McAfee. “They know that it’s exactly the same product they sell in California with a different label.”



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How the Middle East Became the Latest ‘Gold Rush’ in Marketing

The Middle East is set to be the fastest-growing marketing region in the world, driven by momentum in countries such as Saudi Arabia

By MEGAN GRAHAM
Tue, Jun 18, 2024 5 min

Saudi Arabia’s fledgling advertising industry and continued growth in the sector in the United Arab Emirates are helping to make the marketing business in the Middle East the fastest-growing in the world.

Ad spending in the Middle East is projected to increase 8.1% to $6.6 billion this year, up from 3.5% last year, according to advertising research firm WARC.

That expansion is building from a much smaller base than in many other ad markets. The Netherlands alone will generate $6 billion in ad spending in 2024, up about 2.3%, WARC said. But it is also enough to outpace every other region in 2024, the firm said.

“It reminds me almost of the gold rush,” said Reda Raad , chief executive of TBWA\Raad Group, an ad agency based in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, that is part of the U.S.-based ad holding company Omnicom Group . “I don’t think we’re going to see this type of growth again in our lifetime.” TBWA\Raad has won eight new clients over the past year, with an increase in head count of 17% to accommodate the new work, Raad said.

Some international brands have long maintained a presence in the region. PepsiCo has considered the area a strategic market for decades, said Karim Elfiqi , senior vice president and chief marketing officer at PepsiCo Africa, Middle East and South Asia. Sponsorship deals with local stars such as Mohamed Salah , a soccer player from Egypt, “are a testimony of how over time, we have been part of the cultural fabric of the region,” Elfiqi said.

Other major brands have formed a more recent focus on the Middle East. The Lego Group opened a Middle East and Africa headquarters in Dubai in 2019, citing the size of the region’s young population. That office has developed work such as a Ramadan-themed campaign that ran in the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, among other locations.

‘Massive growth’

The Middle East’s ad market has lagged behind regions such as North America and Europe partly because of stricter cultural norms and regulations that affected business, as did a more limited media landscape and economic instability, according to Raad.

But marketing growth in the region is now being driven in part by newfound marketing interest in Saudi Arabia, where ad spending this year is expected to reach $2.1 billion, nearly double its level in 2019, according to WARC. Growth is also coming from the U.A.E., whose ad market is expected to reach $1.7 billion in 2024. Smaller contributors include Qatar and Kuwait.

The landscape has changed now because of economic diversification, increased connectivity and a move into the digital world, leading international brands to enter and invest in campaigns tailored to the region, Raad said.

Four years ago, Saudi Arabia made up a small proportion of business at Lightblue, a creative experience and tech agency based in Dubai. These days, 40% of its business comes from the country, says co-founder David Balfour , who opened an office in Riyadh last month as a result.

“The conversation used to be, ‘We’re going to do this in Dubai.’ Now, it’s ‘We’re going to do this in Dubai—and in Saudi.’” Balfour said. “We’re seeing massive growth in that region.”

There have been speed bumps. As government spending reaches huge levels , Saudi Arabia experienced a rare economic contraction in 2023.

But the country’s efforts to expand its economic pursuits beyond oil have led to the creation of new brands, which are seeking the help of marketing agencies to get the word out.

Marketers in the region are seeking help to stay on-trend in areas such as generative artificial intelligence and social media, said Greg Paull , principal of R3, a consulting firm that helps match advertisers with agencies.

“U.A.E. has been a magnet for the region for 20 years as more investment has come in—but with the new leadership in Saudi since 2017 [when Mohammed bin Salman was named crown prince ], this market has gone through remarkable growth,” Paull said.

Saudi Arabia has faced criticism for its human-rights record under the crown prince, the day-to-day ruler of the kingdom, especially over the 2018 killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the more recent jailing of women’s rights activists.

Mohammed has outlasted the international isolation that followed Khashoggi’s killing, however, and continues to pursue an economic diversification plan dubbed Vision 2030. The country last year unveiled plans for a new international airline called Riyadh Air, is investing billions of dollars to build its tourism and videogame industries, and in March hosted a golf tournament in Jeddah under the auspices of LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed league that has both challenged the PGA Tour and struck a deal to unify with it.

Changing tides

Vision 2030 also calls women’s empowerment a top social priority and seeks to increase the country’s employment rate of women.

Nada Hakeem , CEO and co-founder of Saudi creative agency Wetheloft, said the perceptions of hardships for women in the marketing and advertising industry are outdated and inaccurate.

“As a Saudi woman who founded my company in 2012, I’ve always felt supported by the creative community and the industry as a whole,” Hakeem said. “While every society may have its challenges, I can confidently say that these challenges have not hindered our growth.”

A progression of new laws, policies and incentives are making the industry in Saudi Arabia more inclusive and supportive for women, she added.

In certain parts of the Middle East, “absolutely, it’s still challenging, but they are making the right strides, and they have the right quotas and ambitions in place,” said Rebecca Bezzina , CEO for the EMEA region at R/GA, an agency owned by Interpublic Group of Cos.

“They’ve got wealth, they’ve got world-class ambition, world-class budget. They’re not shy of doing things in the right way,” Bezzina added, speaking of the region overall. “But they still have a talent shortage, especially from a creative and design and product point of view. So often what we’ve found our success has been that they’ve come to us and said, ‘Oh, we want a world-class agency to help us launch this new venture or do this new brand.’”

R/GA said it sees 69% more requests for agency work from marketers in the region today than it did five years ago. It recently handled a brand redesign for Banque Saudi Fransi, which wanted to reaffirm its Saudi roots with a modern identity, and created Weyay, the brand for a new digital bank from the National Bank of Kuwait.

The agency hasn’t notably increased its regional workforce, but it has made changes to facilitate working across Europe and the Middle East.

Other Western players are making moves to capture a piece of the growth. Advertising giant WPP has long worked in Saudi Arabia through units such as Ogilvy and GroupM, but in 2021 established a joint venture with a local company to create ICG Saudi Arabia, a communications and media company based in Saudi Arabia. Ad holding company Stagwell opened new offices for its media agency Assembly in Riyadh in 2021 and in Cairo in 2022.

Regional hospitality

Some executives said certain facets of business dealings in the Middle East are different than in other parts of the world.

Bertrand Morin, a group account director for R/GA who is based in London and works often with Middle Eastern clients, said he spends much more time speaking about personal lives and families with those clients than those in the U.K. or U.S. He has been invited to Middle Eastern clients’ homes to join their families for dinner, something that has never happened with clients elsewhere.

But others say it can feel surprisingly familiar.

Balfour, the Lightblue co-founder, said he was struck by the number of ad-agency workers recently having dinner at the Riyadh location of steakhouse chain Beefbar, and the scene’s similarity to far-off locations.

“The staff are from everywhere in the world. The service and the food is unbelievable. There’s a DJ playing,” Balfour said. “Apart from not having alcohol, you could be anywhere in the world.”

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