If Minnesota foodies and farmers occasionally get the feeling they’re being watched closely by Big Brother, maybe it’s because they are.
Last Thursday, the day before the Third Annual Raw Milk Symposium was due to get under way at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Bloomington, MN, hotel chef Pierre Jean Laupies had a visit from two local health department inspectors.
“They said they received a complaint,” he related in a conversation this morning. “They told me, ‘Do not use raw milk. Do not handle raw milk.’” (Who made the “complaint”? Ah, the inspectors couldn’t say. Maybe Joe in communicable diseases, or Mary in restaurant inspections. Or maybe an inspector just saw the Symposium’s reference to the upcoming “unveiling of our Traditional Foods Menu” for the weekend, and didn’t know what the hell traditional foods are.)
Since Laupies, a Frenchman who has been in the U.S. for the last 37 years, and a chef at the Embassy Suites for the past 20 years, had no plans to serve raw milk, he told the agents there was no problem. He even offered to show them a list of all the food in the hotel kitchen, which they declined. But just to make sure he got the broad message, “One of them said, ‘You know what happened to Mr. Hartmann. You don’t want that to happen to you.’”
The reference to “what happened to Mr. Hartmann,” of course, was a reference to the embargo placed on dairy farmer Michael Hartmann’s inventory after eight people became ill from E.coli O157:H7 linked to his farm last May. The food was eventually ordered destroyed after a legal challenge by Hartmann was rejected. An effort by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to bring contempt-of-court charges against Hartmann for giving much of the food to his family for consumption before it could be destroyed was eventually dismissed by a state judge.
As Laupies related the story of Thursday’s visit, in his heavy French accent, it was clear the implied threat of interference with his food choices upset his sensibilities as a French-trained chef. “They were very polite,” he said of the two agents who visited his kitchen. “One of them said she grew up on a farm drinking raw milk. But she said the raw milk being served today has pathogens that weren’t around in her day.”
Yes, the old “good old days” line you hear from public health and agriculture regulators so often. Raw dairy was fine for them, but too bad they can’t allow others to enjoy the same benefits.
By the way, Laupies is quite the chef. He and his staff embraced the local food—beef, pork, butter, cream, potatoes—donated by local farmers, and the meals were a high point of the weekend Symposium events.
Perhaps I reacted badly to news of the intrusion because I had just yesterday listened to a presentation at the Symposium by Sylvia Onusic, a nutritionist and writer who has studied Europe’s food policies. The European Union’s raw milk policy, she said, is that “it is safe and great to drink. No country can ban raw milk.” The members are free to add certain requirements, and several, like Scotland, have moved to restrict access. But in countries like Italy, France, and Slovenia, raw milk and/or raw milk cheeses are widely available, oftentimes via vending machines in big cities.
Onusic described as well EU policies designed to encourage young farmers to get into farming, and financial incentives to encourage environmentally favorable farming. It points to a culture that respects food and small farms producing nutrient-dense foods—a sense of respect that seems to be missing in the U.S.
The sense of being under siege that the hotel chef experienced is old hat by now to many Minnesota residents who value nutrient-dense food. They’ve seen their food club, Traditional Foods Minnesota, shut down for nearly a year, as well as farms raided, and several official confiscations by agriculture agents of milk and eggs on their way to being delivered to buyers.
I half expected to find a disheartened, and maybe even despondent, group of consumers. The reality was completely opposite. Many of the 250 or so attendees at the symposium were consumers and farmers from Minnesota, and those I met were upbeat, and resolute.
“The raids have been sad,” one told me. “But all these things have brought us closer as a community. We communicate off line to arrange for buying and delivering our food.”
There’s also been a good deal of activism and organizing associated with trying to get legislation passed in the Minnesota legislature that would allow for deliveries of raw milk to private residences. (Right now, raw milk is supposed to be sold from dairy farms.) Lots of people are investing lots of time into these activities.
I spoke with a number of farmers who’ve been moved by the loyalty of consumers. One is well on his way toward raising loan funds from his customers to expand his operations. Another said the publicity around the raids and sieges has led to an increase in his business beyond what he can handle. No one is backing out of business, as the regulators certainly were hoping. The only ones who remain out of business are the owners of Traditional Foods Minnesota, the Minneapolis buying club shuttered last June, who have sought to play by the rules to obtain various licenses…and continue to be mired in red tape.
I’ve not mentioned individual names of farmers and consumers to avoid giving the regulators investigative information, since it’s clear they are watching closely. Once again, though, it’s ironic how the regulator crackdowns tend to increase consumer resolve to resist, and to expand the marketplace far more than any amount of advertising and promotion ever could.