New Jersey is seeking to preserve its image as one of the least tolerant states in the country for raw milk by serving at least eight of its residents with “cease and desist” letters claiming they are “selling and distributing unpasteurized (raw) milk in this state.”

The letters, which arrived late last week via certified mail, demand that the recipients, within five days, “provide written confirmation that these practices have ceased…Failure to cease and desist in the sale and distribution of raw milk in this state will result in the Department’s pursuit of appropriate civil sanctions against you.” The letters are signed by Loel Muetter, program manager of the Public Health and Food Protection Program. (I have reproduced one of the letters here, without the names of the recipient or other related data.)

Most of the communities are in the south and central part of the state. Among those targeted by the NJ Department of Health are Cranbury, Princeton, Plainsboro, S. Plainfield, and Summit. Most of them include significant numbers of Indian and other Asian immigrants. Last week, the NJ Department of Health disputed one of my posts alleging that one of its investigators was involved in targeting these communities. It turned out that the investigation was likely carried out by one or more county health department investigators. But clearly, the NJ Department of Health was calling the shots.

As the NJ Department of Health no doubt intended, the letters have created a panic among the recipients and other members of the community who consume raw milk. “I am fearful of possible fines,” one recipient of the cease-and-desist order told me. “We’re frightened. It could be in the thousands.”

But this resident, who didn’t want to be identified, also expressed anger. “They want to cut off this great food. The gall of them!”

The targeted residents say the letter’s accusations are untrue, that they aren’t either selling or distributing raw milk in New Jersey. The milk is purchased at a farm in Pennsylvania, they say, and residents have it brought to the homes of volunteers in NJ who hold the milk until neighbors can pick it up. These volunteers don’t handle money and aren’t paid.

Indeed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2011 issued a statement sanctioning the transport of raw milk across state lines by consumers “for his or her own personal consumption.”

Presumably the FDA doesn’t see the NJ residents as fitting into its 2011 exception statement, since the agency gets involved in pretty much every situation alleging interstate sale and/or distribution of raw milk, and should be assumed to be involved in this one, helping guide the NJ Department of Health.

At least one food rights organization, the Real Food Consumer Coalition, is monitoring the New Jersey situation. It is seeking to provide the recipients of the cease-and-desist letters with legal assistance, and asks that supporters direct  new funding to its fund-raising web site to aid in that effort.