Coolers from The Family Cow farm of Pennsylvania at a drop-off point near the New Jersey border, in 2014.

(This post has been updated since it was originally posted.)

It’s highly unusual for food regulators in a raw milk enforcement crackdown to visit private homes and threaten consumers. The only place I know of where this has happened is Minnesota. Back in 2012, state regulators actually obtained a search warrant and raided one home, scaring the bejesus out of the owners. Regulators also issued warning letters to about nine or ten other consumers, essentially telling them they could face fines or even jail if they continued using their residences as drop sites.

No other state state has taken the Minnesota path…..until now. Within the last two weeks, at least one investigator from a New Jersey health authority has visited private homes in at least four towns that serve as drop sites for private food clubs, taking photos of food coolers and warning consumers they could face fines or other legal penalties, presumably for using their homes as pickup points for raw dairy and other food for their local neighborhoods.

Perhaps New Jersey regulators feel emboldened in targeting consumers because of the agency’s special enforcement wrinkle: All the communities targeted by the investigation thus far appear to be in neighborhoods heavily populated by immigrants from India.

I’m restricted in the details I can provide because the targeted individuals are understandably terrified about what has occurred and have only agreed to speak about the crackdown on the condition I not provide identifying information about them. Immigrants, even those in the U.S. legally, tend to be nervous about potentially having their immigration status somehow challenged, especially in today’s U.S., where immigrants without proper papers are being rounded up and deported back to their countries of origin.

When I inquired with the New Jersey Department of Health about the investigation and its unusual targets, I was at first give a tentative response (it “couldn’t confirm or deny” an investigation). After this post appeared, the agency said the investigator didn’t come from the NJ Department of Health.  I had sent the agency a series of questions inquiring into the nature of the investigation and why it appeared to be targeting Indian immigrants.

Among the questions I had wanted answered:

-Is there a connection to the recent regulatory concerns over Udder Milk?  Udder bills itself as a “creamery coop,” or “a creamery on wheels.” It has been under regulatory pressure in New York and New Jersey because of contentions by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that its milk sickened a woman with brucellosis, which is a pathogen that can kill cows. According to the FDA, the strain that infected the woman was “a weakened strain used to vaccinate young female cattle against infection with more serious strains of Brucella.”

However, none of the homes visited by the NJ investigator was known to be receiving milk from Udder.

-What is the role of the FDA in the New Jersey dragnet? The FDA is invariably involved, at least in the background, with state agencies that crack down on raw milk, especially if it potentially involves out-of-state milk.

-Would the investigation have anything to do with the the politics of raw milk?  For example, raw milk advocates are currently in the process of renewing efforts to legalize the sale of raw milk in New Jersey. Several previous initiatives have failed in the NJ legislature. There is also a pending citizen petition filed last April with the FDA by the Real Food Citizen Coalition (RFCC) to lift the interstate prohibition on raw milk; it would make enforcement concerns like those of New Jersey moot, since properly labeled raw milk could be brought into New Jersey without penalty.

-Why would New Jersey authorities be targeting raw milk consumed by immigrants?   Though NJ is one of fewer than a dozen states that still prohibit the sale of raw milk, its residents who want it have been assumed to obtain it from one of its neighbors like Pennsylvania or New York, where raw milk is fairly widely available. It turns out that New Jersey has quietly developed a fairly active private food club movement over the years, with the bulk of members consisting of Weston A. Price Foundation types.

But a significant minority of NJ raw milk consumers are from India. They apparently prize raw milk in particular because it is natural and unhomogenized, allowing for easy preparation of butter and cheeses. They are understood to boil the milk first, essentially self pasteurizing it, as they were accustomed to doing in their home country.

So, as of now, it’s impossible to know exactly what prompted the NJ investigation or where it will go from here. In Minnesota five years ago, no one was actually penalized that I know of, simply because the tactic of trying to penalize people for consuming particular foods has always been doomed to failure, since Americans generally wouldn’t stand for it—they’ll complain to their local political representatives—and the resulting publicity winds up embarrassing the regulators. So regulators have mostly focused their anti-raw-milk venom on raw dairy farmers, since there are far fewer of them than consumers. But that was then. Might regulators now be testing out whether the old standards still apply?