A USDA investigation of Pennsylvania farmer Amos Miller’s meat production practices has taken an ominous turn in recent days, apparently morphing into a national dragnet to collect the food purchase records of thousands of food club members around the country.
One ray of hope for Miller: a federal judge in North Carolina last week questioned the scope of the USDA probe and indicated a desire to see it scaled back.
I have posted a number of reports on an investigation by the Food Safety and Inspection Office (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which issued subpoenas last spring for information from Amos Miller, supposedly based on a report issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in March tying milk from Miller’s farm to a death in Florida and a serious illness in California. When Miller refused to cooperate, citing his non-public operation, the USDA went to federal court, and obtained an order that Miller allow federal agents in to conduct “inspections” of his farm.
Those “inspections” over the summer turned into demands for members’ food purchase records, which Miller declined to provide, citing contractual requirements that he keep member information private. Most recently, the USDA has sought to hold Miller in contempt of court, and a hearing is scheduled on the contempt request November 1, in Easton, Pennsylvania.
While Miller and the thousands of food club members who have been following his problems have assumed that the USDA/FSIS investigation stemmed from the CDC report, it turns out that a second group within USDA–its National Organic Program (NOP), which sets standards for “organic” labeling—launched an investigation of a Miller-affiliated food club in North Carolina beginning in March 2015, well before the CDC issued its raw milk report. This USDA office issued a subpoena for information from the coordinator of that club, Jacob Williams, who works as an IT director of a private company, and volunteers as the club’s coordinator, taking orders and helping distribute the food. The NC group has more than 1,100 members.
What did the USDA/NOP want from Williams? Surprise—it sought all the club’s food purchase records going back to 2012.
When Williams refused to cooperate with the subpoena, based on the club’s non-public status, the USDA/NOP sought a contempt-of-court order against the volunteer. Threatened with potentially thousands in fines, and even jail time, Williams decided to provide the records. In advance of a hearing last week on the contempt order, Williams provided more than 2,600 pages of purchase records from 2015 to the present, showing food items purchased, but redacting member names and addresses (including city and state).
According to Williams, at the hearing Thursday in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville, NC, Judge Louise Wood Flanagan questioned the USDA/NOP official present about why the agency had gone after Williams rather than going after Miller. The official said the agency had attempted to go after Miller, but went after Williams instead when Miller refused to cooperate, Williams reported.
I inquired with Miller, who confirmed he had received a subpoena from USDA/NOP in 2013, questioning his use of the term “organic” in his farm’s name, Miller’s Organic Farm, since the farm isn’t certified organic. Miller says he responded by explaining that his farm operates privately, and didn’t advertise its products. When a second subpoena arrived in 2014, Miller requested an administrative hearing on the USDA/NOP concerns. He says he received a letter back saying an administrative hearing would be scheduled, but then nothing happened after that, except that he received another subpoena in 2015, which he answered by again requesting a hearing.
Williams told me that at his federal court hearing last week, he pointed out that none of the products Miller sells to members is labeled as “organic,” and that none of the purchase records show products described as “organic.” He said that when Judge Flanagan questioned the USDA/NOP official about where the investigation was going, the official said the agency plans to expand its inquiry by demanding purchase records from all food clubs affiliated with Miller’s farm. There are at least a dozen such clubs, with anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand members each.
Williams said the official didn’t provide any further explanation of what was behind the USDA/NOP investigation. At the direction of the judge, Williams negotiated with the USDA/NOP official about exactly how many additional records he should provide for the period 2012-2014. Williams told me that he and the USDA/NOP official agreed Williams will provide 50 representative records per year, or a total of 150 for the three years. This is much less than the nearly 5,000 records he actually has. If other judges similarly question the USDA’s motives in collecting so many records, the investigation could be hampered.
What are the two USDA offices after in seeking out the purchase records of potentially thousands of food club members, covering tens of thousands of purchases? Here are a few possible motives:
–Collect so many “offenses” that Miller is forced out of business. By seeking out so many purchase records, the USDA could seek to associate Miller’s with tens of thousands of alleged violations of USDA regulations covering meat slaughter or other areas. By attaching a fine to each violation, the total fine could be hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars, which Miller couldn’t afford.
—Set the stage for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Many of the receipts the USDA is seeking include purchases of raw milk. The USDA could share that information with FDA, which could use it as the basis of its own investigation, and eventual penalties.
—Intimidate food club members. It could be that the USDA wants to scare the rapidly increasing number of consumers joining Miller’s food clubs from associating with him. It may figure that many food club members will be afraid when they learn Big Brother is monitoring their food purchases, with unknown consequences. Additionally, it is clear that the USDA wants to scare people away from private food in general.
On this last possible motive, Liz Reitzig and Niki Adamkova, along with others, have organized the Real Food Consumer Coalition (RFCC) to empower groups of consumers to stand up for their food choices. The two women say RFCC is monitoring the Miller investigation. They encourage food club members and others who support food freedom to contribute to the RFCC crowd-funding campaign, which is designed to protect the rights of food club members.