The onslaught against private food buying groups continue unabated in states from Georgia to Massachusetts to Wisconsin. The latest blow comes in Ohio, where a state judge ruled a few days ago that Manna Storehouse, the cooperative that was raided in December 2008 by armed agents who allegedly held the Stowers family at gunpoint, needs a retail food  license.

(The ruling is apart from a civil suit filed by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund and the Buckeye Institute arguing that the Stowers family’s rights to due process were violated by the raid.)

In the midst of these initiatives, though, the state of Wyoming is in the process of attempting a refreshingly different approach in the form of proposed legislation with the catchy title, “Wyoming Food Freedom Act”. The Wyoming House is holding hearings about the legislation, which would “exempt certain sales from licensure, certification and inspection” if the foods are being served at social events like weddings or sold directly to consumers at farmers markets or roadside stands. Yes, farmers who now must ship cattle hundreds of miles out of state because Wyoming doesn’t have a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse would be able to do on-farm slaughtering, and sell raw milk, but wouldn’t be subject to inspection. Sounds like an element of “freedom” to me.

There’s more, and this comes on the economic side of the private-foods matter. One issue that often gets lost in all the conflict between rights and protection is jobs and income. Harassing buying clubs and small dairies puts at risk the jobs of the people running the buying groups as well as the farmers and their workers who provide the food. This is something public health and ag department enforcers completely ignore, I presume because they all have jobs.

One of the purposes of the Wyoming legislation is to promote something called “Agri-tourism”, which it defines as “a style of vacation that normally takes place on a farm or ranch and includes any farm or ranch that is open to the public at least part of the year. Agri-tourism may include the opportunity to participate in agricultural tasks, including harvesting fruits and vegetables, riding horses, tasting honey, learning about wine and shopping in farm or ranch gift shops and farm stands for local and regional agricultural produce or hand-crafted gifts.”

Now, agri-tourism may sound hokey to some, and it may not even produce great jobs. But sadly, in all the hysteria over food safety, the linkages between small farms and economic development tend to get lost in the shuffle.

Indeed, in Wyoming as well, local public health officials are using scare tactics to lobby against the legislation. According to a local paper, “Casper-Natrona County Health Department Executive Director Bob Harrington is trying to convince the Legislature that passing the Wallis bill would be a mistake. ‘If the law exempts home kitchens, there’s no way to intercept potential risks,’ he said…Harrington is worried that chipping away at the ‘pitchfork to salad fork’ approach with special conditions could put the public at risk for health problems that could range from E-coli to kidney failure or death.” Yes, we’d be playing Russian Roulette with our health.

Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Dairy Co. prepares to testify on Wyoming’s proposed Food Freedom Act in Cheyenne.Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Dairy Co. went to Cheyenne to testify before the legislative committee. He reports, “I was the only person to testify for raw milk at the hearings. The health department jammed the hearings and tried to take all of the time that was allotted. The chairman cut them off and demanded equal time for the pro raw milk testimony. I got about 20 minutes to testify and then submitted several critical documents in favor of safe raw milk.” More about his testimony in a local news account.

In addition to the Wyoming legislation, there is legislation pending in Georgia, Iowa, and Idaho on formalizing rules on sale and access to raw milk. You can bet that many in the conventional dairy industry are becoming ever more nervous.