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Qualifying statements (read: product warnings) are invariably written in the smallest print or spoken in the fastest, faintest monotone, so they tend to go by unheeded.

Warnings are bad for business because they put the very product that is being touted in a less than favorable light. So consumers tend to hear all the good news up front and either strain to hear or simply tune out the qualifiers because they have heard all they care to hear. Certainly, product advertisers count on potential customers tuning out right after the good news and they keep their product liability bases covered by pointing out that consumers were warned – if they happened to have super-hearing or the ability to read eye-crossing small print. And when all else fails, you can always sue someone for leading you astray.

When we are managing illness we need to be able to evaluate the benefits and risks of various forms of treatment. “Pathologies” from menopause to allergies, among scores of other conditions, have spawned a rash (oops – sorry) of treatments, warnings and “contra-indicators” for the suffering consumer to wade through – it’s enough to make you want to lie down and take two aspirins.

But what about the people who simply want to manage their health? Who simply want to make the best possible choices and secure nutritious food that will also contribute to a clean environment and a just economy?

The local farmers’ market is the place for them since they can accomplish several good and healthful goals in one shopping trip – buying local sustainably grown food and supporting family farms in addition to eating better. But the farmers’ markets have warnings, too.

Several years ago, the large commercial juice producer Odwalla put out a product that contained a particularly nasty form of e-Coli – one that was immune to the natural acidity of fruit juice that kept less virulent forms of the pathogen in check. Research showed that the e-Coli strain came from deer droppings, and Odwalla admitted that it had been getting contaminated apples picked up from the orchard floor. The FDA quickly moved to require that all fresh fruit juice be pasteurized – a heating process that kills beneficial enzymes – and renders the juice product less healthful. Apple juice producers from farmers’ markets went to the FDA hearings to request a special exemption from the pasteurization requirement for juice products that were harvested from trees, not from the ground. Failing to gain an exemption, apple juice producers who preferred to keep selling unpasteurized juice were required to put warning labels on their juice advising customers that e-Coli could be present in juice, but the label would not go so far as to assert that there was no risk from apples that were harvested from trees. That time-consuming task was left to the farmers, who had to explain over and over again to concerned customers that their unpasteurized juice was actually better for them than the pasteurized. Finally, the farmers simply decided to go along with pasteurization, and a valuable, healthful commodity was lost from the markets.

Two of the Santa Monica farmers’ markets have recently welcomed Organic Pastures Dairy Company to the regular lineup. Organic Pastures is the only certified raw dairy in California, and one of a very few nationwide. Raw milk is known to contain a host of beneficial enzymes and bacteria that promote health through complete digestion, immune system enhancement and the presence of essential fatty acids. Organic Pastures has many informative handouts for wary customers who have heard only alarming reports about raw milk products, mainly from the USDA’s own dairy council that is opposed to raw milk production and has managed to ban raw milk in many states. All raw milk products must contain a stern safety warning about “disease causing micro-organisms” – pathogens that transmit disease from food to humans. Organic Pastures will tell you, however, that there has not been one case of human disease due to the consumption of their raw milk products. In fact, raw milk products have been proven again and again to be an effective treatment for asthma and allergies, and that even lactose intolerant individuals can safely ingest them. Again, farmers are put on the spot to explain away USDA warnings in order to educate the public about the health benefits of their products.The debate would be a lot more equitable if the large commodity producers of corn, wheat and soy were required to label which of their products contain “genetically modified organisms” (GMO’s) outlining those health risks, but their mighty lobbying clout has prevented this type of labeling. Consumers and farmers are left to the difficult task of producing and identifying the safest and most healthful food products. Just now I turned over my keyboard to shake out a cascade of tiny beads that were rattling around in there (don’t ask,) and I was surprised to see the following sternly worded health warning label – “Use of a keyboard or mouse may be linked to serious injuries or disorders … (symptoms such as) recurring discomfort, pain, throbbing, aching, tingling, numbness, burning sensation or stiffness … sometimes permanent disabling injuries or disorders of the nerves, muscles, tendons or other parts of the body – known as MSD’s (muscular-skeletal disorders.) “I was advised to “promptly see a health professional” if any of these symptoms appeared and to study a CD ROM on the topic and read my user’s guide. Isn’t there any good news about using a keyboard and mouse? Why is information so negative? OK, I’ve been warned. But I am going to try to keep the big picture in mind and find out the whole truth before I make up my mind.

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