Nondairy Dreamers


During a meal at a friend's home a couple of years ago, my wife and I were startled to hear another guest inveigh against milk. The fact that he chose to avoid dairy products did not surprise us so much as the fact that he felt so strongly about it. His vehemence suggested that he was lactose intolerant as a matter of principle.

The principle involved was not exactly clear, but it seemed to have something to do with the naturalistic fallacy. Our lunch companion emphasized that human beings are the only species that consumes milk past infancy. I pointed out that human beings are also the only species with domesticated animals, pasteurization, and refrigerators. Undaunted, he continued his tirade.

I thought of this fellow the other day, when I heard about a new group called the AntiDairy Coalition, which aims to "challenge the greatest myth in America: that 'milk does a body good.'" This got my attention, since I used to think the greatest myth in America was that it wouldn't be summer without summer fruits from California.

"Milk products, like tobacco products, are an enormous threat to the health of both children and adults," says ADC Executive Director Robert Cohen, author of Milk: The Deadly Poison. "The AntiDairy Coalition believes that the secret to optimum health is giving up milk and dairy products." In other words, "The Fountain of Youth and cure to illness can be obtained by giving up milk."

Lest you think that the ADC consists of a few isolated cranks, a June 29 press release says the coalition "includes some of the country's top physicians." Oddly, the six "physicians" it lists include three non-M.D.s: a nutritionist, a chiropractor, and a mathematician.

Probably the most famous convert to the anti-dairy cause is the pediatrician Benjamin Spock, author of the influential parent's guide Baby and Child Care. In the latest edition of the book, published a few weeks after his death, Spock prescribes a strict vegetarian diet for children. "I no longer recommend dairy products after the age of 2 years," he writes.

That advice has been widely criticized by nutrition experts, who say it's difficult for kids to get all the nutrients they need from plant foods. The pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, described by The New York Times as "a longtime admirer and friend of Dr. Spock," called his insistence on a vegan diet "absolutely insane."

Nutty or not, advocates of a milk-free America have a right to make their case. Yet the ADC complains that a "conspiracy of intimidation" is discouraging an open debate about the merits of a nondairy lifestyle.

People who claim to have identified "the secret to optimum health" probably should avoid using the word "conspiracy." But the ADC does have a point: In states with "food libel" laws, calling milk a deadly poison could land you in court.

Since 1989, when apple sales dropped because of groundless fears about the growth regulator Alar, 13 states have adopted laws aimed at discouraging false claims that a "perishable food product or commodity" is unsafe for human consumption. In the most famous food disparagement case so far, Texas cattlemen sued Oprah Winfrey over a 1996 show suggesting that consumers of American beef should worry about mad cow disease.

The cattlemen asked for $12 million in damages. A federal jury ruled against them in February, and they appealed. Meanwhile, a second lawsuit over the same show has been filed in state court. Even if she ultimately prevails, Winfrey and her insurers may end up shelling out several million dollars in legal expenses.

The threat of costly litigation is intimidating, especially for people who aren't as rich as Oprah Winfrey. Indeed, food disparagement laws operate mainly by encouraging self-censorship. "To the degree that the mere presence of these laws has caused activists to think twice," said one supporter quoted in The National Law Journal, "then these laws have already accomplished what they set out to do."

It's comforting to imagine that alarmists and demagogues are the only ones who will "think twice." But even responsible critics who believe what they say are apt to be inhibited by the prospect of a lawsuit requiring them to prove the truth of their statements in court.

So the AntiDairy Coalition is right about food disparagement laws. I'm not so sure about the milk thing.