Six months after launching an elaborate sting operation against Michigan farmer Richard Hebron while he delivered raw milk to cow-share owners in Ann Arbor, and a follow-on investigation that spanned at least three other states from Pennsylvania to Missouri, Michigan walked away from the entire mess by giving the farmer little more than a slap on the wrist.
You could almost hear authorities from Michigan’s Department of Agriculture (MDA) and county prosecutor offices in Cass and Washtenaw counties breathe a sigh of relief this morning as they wrapped up the embarrassing case by agreeing to a settlement with Hebron whereby he can continue distributing raw milk to members of the Family Farms Cooperative and approving in principle the validity of cow share agreements. In exchange, all Hebron needs to do is refrain from distributing raw milk through any retail establishment (which he hasn’t been doing since the sting operation), “come into compliance” on a number of food preparation and processing matters on foods apart from raw milk, and pay a $1,000 “administrative fine,” according to Katherine Fedder, head of the MDA’s Food and Dairy Division.
The MDA’s soft and reasoned approach demonstrated today is a far cry from previous talk of a trial of Hebron on felony charges for supposedly violating state rules against sale of raw milk.
The sting operation, which had state police and MDA officials pulling Hebron’s truck over on the morning of Oct. 13, confiscating his $7,000 of raw milk, butter, kefir, meat, and other products, and executing search warrants on his home and the storage facilities of Morgan & York, an Ann Arbor food and wine store, created outrage in Michigan. Local politicians were inundated with emails and letters of protest, which caused them to complain to the MDA.
Nearly 300 members and supporters of the Family Farms Cooperative wrote testimonials on behalf of Hebron to the Cass County prosecutor’s office, which took the lead in determining whether to bring charges against Hebron. Many of the letters were touching accounts of how families had come to rely on the raw milk Hebron delivered to help improve their immune systems and relieve chronic health conditions like asthma in children. Steve Bemis, the Ann Arbor lawyer and FFC member who represented Hebron in negotiating the settlement with the MDA, presented copies of the letters to Fedder.
Fedder, for her part, says the letters in that pile, along with more than 100 her office received “certainly enhanced my knowledge of who the advocates are and where they come from. I have a greater understanding of their concerns.” She also credited this blog for having “done a service” in informing people about the many facets of the raw milk issue. Hey, I’ll take that praise, especially coming from a public official who has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism.
Hebron, for his part, isn’t overly ecstatic about the settlement. He not only lost the confiscated produce, but many thousands of additional dollars in revenues from people scared off by the government action. He says co-op sales have just in the last few weeks rebounded to pre-sting levels—driven in part by the media attention to his case, as well as by a realization by some that “they haven’t been eating as well, and are starting to see health issues return.” But he worries about “six or eight regulations and codes they now want followed…They want to get me under their thumb with all these regulations.”
Also still outstanding is a warning letter to the co-op’s milk producer, Indiana farmer David Hochstetler, from the federal Food and Drug Administration, accusing him of violating prohibiltions against selling raw milk across state lines. Hochstetler has appealed the warning letter, arguing that he is fulfilling contractual obligations of the cow share agreements and not selling milk.
So while there are still some important loose ends in this case, it is clear that public outrage and media attention did play a role in helping" educate" public officials and encourage them toward a more reasonable approach than they started with. It was certainly an expensive lesson.