Missouri is turning out to not be a great place for raw milk cheese makers to be operating.
On Friday, the sad final scene of a two-and-a-half year tragedy will play out for Morningland Dairy. It is the once-thriving raw-cheese-making business that came under government assault in 2010 when two samples of its cheese were said to be contaminated with listeria monocytogenes, even though no illnesses were ever reported.
The Missouri Milk Board and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ganged up on Morningland and obtained a court order to destroy 30,000 pounds of its cheese, implement a recall on many thousands more sold over the previous eight months, and shutter the cheese making business without providing clear guidance on how it could re-start. All this after a three-day inspection by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration failed to turn up any sign of pathogens in its facilities.
Morningland fought the assault, and lost its court case, which is currently on appeal to the states supreme court. The embargoed cheese, after two-and-a-half years in a cooler, is pretty much rotten.
Doreen Hannes, a Missouri activist, has just published an excellent account of the sad chronology of events over the last two-and-a-half years, Morningland Dairy–The Final Solution. Another well done account, of the legal proceedings, by Pete Kennedy, appears at the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund site. At 8 a.m. Friday, owners Denise and Joseph Dixon will gather with family and friends at the cheese makers headquarters in Mountain View (6224 County Road 2980), while the Missouri Milk Board arrives with two dumpsters to cart the cheese to a landfill.
In the meantime, an eerie repeat of the Morningland scenario seems to be playing itself out at another small Missouri raw milk cheese maker–Homestead Creamery in Jamesport. As in the Morningland case, the facts and the actual danger to consumers are difficult to pin down. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services on Jan. 11 put out a Health Advisory that was notable for its vagueness and inferences, saying it had become aware of several cases of diarrheal illness from northwest Missouri, possibly caused by Shiga-toxin producing Escherichia coli (STEC), including one confirmed as E. coli O103. These may be related to the consumption of locally-produced, raw (unpasteurized) dairy products.
Youll notice use of such hedging terminology as possibly caused and may be related.
Such hedging is taken as fact by some personal injury law firms that scour the Internet for public health announcements about food-related illnesses. One of the lawyers blared breathlessly on a blog: E.coli lawyer Fred Pritzker is investigating a recall of Homestead Creamery cheese due to possible E. coli contamination.
In the next paragraph. Pritzker bragged: Fred and his Bad Bug Law Team recently won compensation for victims of another E. coli outbreak caused by tainted raw milk cheese.
And then in bold: You can contact Fred for a free consultation here.
(I inquired with Pritzker for information on what he had learned from investigating the Homestead case, but he hasnt responded.)
Yes, its a competitive business, this product liability lawyering, trolling for live bodies to help you sue the pants off the big bad food producers. And who is this big bad Homestead Creamery Pritzker has his sights trained on?
Its a tiny outfit run by a German Baptist dairy farmer, Tim Flory, and his ten children. He owns 30 cows and lives a life similar to the Amish, without computers and the Internet, and like the Amish, pacifist and outside the world of lawyers and such.
The Missouri Milk Board shut Homestead down two weeks ago when the agency apparently associated one illness from E.coli 103 with a batch of 63 pounds of cheese from his dairy. The agency forced him to recall the cheese, which made sense. But no cheese has come back he says, for a simple reason: Its all been consumed.
I use the word apparently because there hasnt been anything formal put out by the Missouri Milk Board or any other agency beyond the Jan. 11 announcement. An inspector with the Missouri Milk Board who has been overseeing the investigation, Don Falls, told me there has been one illness associated with Homesteads cheese, and that, We are investigating it. He declined to provide further details, saying information would have to come from the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
Tim Flory, the owner of Homestead, says he has similarly been unable to obtain direct answers to his questions of why hes been shut down and, more important, when he will be able to re-open. Hes had no reports on the results of testing done by the state on his cheese, nor on the conditions under which the cheese is being held. He says hes been told the FDA will be in shortly to take swabs of the whole plant and do their thing, whatever that is.
He says that reports on the sites of the product liability lawyers about the possibly tainted cheese having been sold at a retail site, is inaccurate. Most of his 15 varieties of gourmet cheddar, gouda, and other cheeses are sold through his own farm store, and that included the 63 pounds of recalled cheese.
So all he can do is speculate, like everyone else. He utters this politically incorrect thought: Maybe someone got sick who never had raw milk before. You see, asking basic questions like that gets you branded as “blaming the victim,” even if what you are doing is questioning why a possible, maybe, illness of unknown severity is enough to shut down a family’s livelihood and many customers’ source of nutrition. He bemoans trying to meet a food standard of a sterile people. That is America today.
I should add that Flory makes such observations without anger or rancor. He emphasizes that he has no hostility toward those from the state who seem intent on putting him out of business. I would want nothing in print that would indicate they are of less value than me.
Having been shut down for two weeks, unable to sell any products, has put a big dent in his familys finances. When we run out of cash, I suppose well have to eat corn flakes, he says, only half humorously. Since they have put us out of the business were in, I asked him (Don Falls) if they had any programs for welfare.
Flory is very familiar with Morningland Dairy case, and while there are a number of unnerving similarities, one difference is that he wont mount any kind of legal resistance, as Morningland did. I cant see any daylight at the end of that tunnel, he says about possibly signing on with the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund or a private lawyer. I dont have any interest in resisting the state.
He bemoans the broader implications associated with the government stomping out small farms like his. Eventually, these regulations will develop perfectly good food, except it will be very expensive and it wont be very healthy.
Flory may be off the Internet, but he understands the game very well. The lawyers thump their chests, raise holy hell about “victims,” and the regulators do their dance. Hard-working farmers like Flory and the Dixons? They are the enemy, left to twist in the wind of a fear-mongering society that preaches fear of food and bacteria.