A number of people have asked me why Jenny Samuelson didnt just defy the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development last Sunday and cut the red seizure tape on her co-op members food .in much the same way as Vernon Hershberger did in Wisconsin in 2010. Hershberger, of course, chose the path of civil disobedience, and three years later was acquitted of misdemeanor charges in connection with alleged violations of state food permit laws.
I dont know the answer to why Jenny Samuelson made the decision she made at that crisis point. I refrain from urging farmers or food club owners in a particular direction during a key decision time. After all, it is not my immediate freedom or land or food on the line, it is someone else’s.
In retrospect, Samuelson may have understood when she declined to take Vernon Hershbergers path that there is a key difference between Wisconsin and Michigan approaches to raw milk. Wisconsin essentially bans the sale and distribution of raw milk. So, if Hershberger had obeyed the state’s demands and obtained a state retailing license, he would have been caught in a Catch-22 situation where he could sell pretty much any food he wanted .except for raw milk.
In Michigan, the situation is different. Herdshares for raw milk are supposed to be legal. So, if Samuelson were to obtain a food retailing or food handlers licnese, shed be able to sell pretty much any food she wanted, and also continue distributing raw milk to herdshare members. That is, if Michigan was serious about continuing its seven-year-old policy of allowing herdshares.
But did the MDARD raid on Sameulson’s refrigerated food truck signify a change in policy? A few days ago, I asked the MDARD for an update on the Samuelson situation and on herdshares, and late yesterday received this response from a spokesperson there:
As part of a routine investigation, MDARD was made aware of a food business operating without a license. A delivery truck used by My Family Co-op was inspected by three MDARD inspectors after MDARD learned that My Family Co-op was obtaining and selling food products produced in unlicensed establishments in violation of Michigans Food Law. Neither the My Family Co-op truck nor Jenny Samuelson, owner of My Family Co-op, has the required food license under state law.
Its important to note that herd-share members were able to obtain raw milk from the farm throughout this process.
Regular licensing and inspection is critical to protecting public health and decreases the incidence of foodborne illness and death. Neither the My Family Co-op truck nor Jenny Samuelson, owner of My Family Co-op, has the required food license under state law.
The butter, cream, buttermilk, raw milk, and cheese on the truck did not have labels stating when and where it was made or the use by date. The cheese did have a label, but it was labeled as being made by a company that went out of business two years ago. The eggs hadnt been cleaned and still had dirt, etc. on them and were not graded as required by Michigans Food Law.
With the exception of the meat products, the food products on the My Family Co-op delivery truck were obtained from unlicensed processors, not properly labeled, were stored at improper temperatures, were from an out of business processor, and were offered for sale in a manner that violated Michigans Food Law. As a result, MDARD did not permit those food products to be offered for human consumption to protect the health of the customers.
MDARD negotiated an agreement with Ms. Samuelsons attorney to lift the seizure of the My Family Co-op truck. A tentative agreement was negotiated on July 18, 2014. Despite MDARDs multiple calls and attempts to contact Ms. Samuelson and her attorney, neither Ms. Samuelson nor her attorney finalized the agreement on July 18, 2014. Absent a finalized agreement, MDARD was unable to lift the seizure as planned on Saturday, July 19, 2014 and canceled its scheduled inspection.
The agreement was finalized over the weekend of July 19 and 20. On Monday, July 21, 2014, in accordance with the negotiated agreement, MDARD oversaw the disposition of the seized food. Based on statements made by Ms. Samuelson and her attorney, My Family Co-op has resumed its deliveries of raw milk.
Now, there are a number of things not to like about this statement. Like the vague passive tense explanation about how the investigation of Samuelson started (MDARD was made aware of a food business operating without a license).
Theres the euphemism about obscenely disposing of good food. (The trashing of thousands of dollars of good food is described as a disposition of the seized food.)
And theres the suggestion that Samuelson operated an unsafe service. (The eggs hadnt been cleaned and still had dirt, etc. on them .the food products .were stored at improper temperatures.) Of course, the eggs hadnt been cleaned, and were unrefrigerated because that is exactly the way the members wanted them. They didnt want the eggs natural membrane to be damaged by washing, and they wanted their eggs stored the traditional way (and the same way as is required in Europe, without refrigeration).
There is no indication that My Family Co-Op isn’t allowed to distribute raw cream and butter to its members under herdshare agreements.
Finally, there is that repeated refrain about MDARDs desire to protect the health of the customers. That is standard regulatory mumbo jumbo, and is especially misplaced here, where there were no complaints about illness or unsanitary conditions or anything else .except possibly by corporate interests threatened by Michigans growing herdshare phenomenon.
Having said all that, I will say that I admire the MDARDs willingness to explain itself about the Samuelson incident. Too often, state and federal regulators batten down the hatches when an incident like this comes up. But more significant is that MDARD has reiterated its commitment to the states raw milk herdshare policy. It is attempting to reassure the public that there wasnt a hidden agenda in the raid on Samuelsons truck to do away with herdshares. (“Its important to note that herd-share members were able to obtain raw milk from the farm throughout this process,” the agency emphasized.) It is saying that if Samuelson gets a retailing or food handlers license, she should be okay. From what I understand, a number of Michigan farmers with herdshares have done just that, and are operating okay. It is also saying that Michigan is not Wisconsin.