How strongly will the town of Blue Hill, Maine, and food sovereignty supporters,(not necessarily in that order) stand up to the state’s pressure to push the town aside while it prosecutes a local farmer for selling raw milk and other foods directly to town residents?
That is the question in this politically charged clash between a state and one of its tiny towns (Blue Hill population: 2,217). The amount of resistance displayed by citizens of Blue Hill, and its supporters everywhere, will send a strong message… to dozens, and possibly hundreds of other towns and cities around the country considering food sovereignty ordinances similar to that passed by Blue Hill last April…and to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is watching this whole chain of events very nervously.
Already, as many as a dozen towns around the country, most of them in New England, have passed food sovereignty ordinances–laws or advisories that allow local farmers to sell food directly to their town’s residents, without the need for state permits or other regulatory authority. In Maine, alone, five towns have passed food sovereignty ordinances. Los Angeles County has such an advisory under consideration.
The state of Maine is obviously very concerned about the Food Sovereignty movement–its commissioner of agriculture last April wrote a letter of warning to Blue Hill (and other towns) within days of passage of the ordinance, saying in part, “The ordinance purports to exempt local residents from certain food licensure and inspection requirements…the ordinance is preempted by state law…town residents involved in food processing and sales activities which are subject to state licensing and inspection are not exempt from those requirements…persons who fail to comply will be subject to enforcement, including the removal from sale of products from unlicensed sources and/or the imposition of fines.”
True to its word, state inspectors began monitoring local farmers selling food to town residents. They took note of Dan Brown, a Blue Hill farmer, selling raw dairy products, pickles, and jam, half a dozen times from his farm stand and at a couple of local farmers markets.
Two weeks ago, the state of Maine and its agriculture commissioner, Walter Whitcomb, filed suit in state court seeking an injunction against Brown for selling milk without a permit and pickles and jam without a food establishment license.
Food Sovereignty supporters are lining up–they have a Facebook page, a legal defense organization, and lots of energy to convince Maine officials they are making a big mistake in challenging the food sovereignty ordinances.
Brown explains in a brief YouTube recording his reasons for avoiding the conventional dairy business (take a guess at the main one).
The supporters have been busy mobilizing local political support. According to Bob St. Peter, a leader of the Food Sovereignty campaign, “In the fall of 2010, both the Hancock County Democrats and Republicans received presentations from local farmers on the ordinance. The farmers were warmly received and both parties expressed their support for the effort. Following the passage of the ordinance in Sedgwick and Penobscot, local farmers and organizers received a request from the Libertarian Party of Maine to include the ordinance as part of their platform. While there is strong feeling among farmers and farm patrons who led the organizing effort that the ordinance should not be an issue owned by any one political party, it is noteworthy that support for the ordinance crossed party lines.”
The bootprint of the FDA is all over the state’s rapid and aggressive move against Blue Hill. The fact that the letter to the town, followed by the court suit, have happened at lightning speed (for a state bureaucracy), is an indication of how concerned the FDA is. It is pushing the state, holding the carrot of lucrative cooperative agreements, and the sweet federal cash behind them, supplied by FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as incentive for the state to do the agency’s bidding.
It looks like another situation similar to that of Michael Schmidt and his hunger strike. Lots of people, in Maine and outside, need to let the Department of Agriculture and the governor’s office know about their outrage. The food sovereignty movement is only spreading because rapidly growing numbers of people are worried about the food they find at WalMart and big supermarkets. They want access to real food, and are voting with their feet. But the farmers will only be able to provide the food if lots of people tell the politicians and bureaucrats in no uncertain terms to get out of the way.
The first step in the Maine situation is a press conference and rally outside the Blue Hill town hall Friday at noon, timed to coincide with a selectmen’s meeting. “Residents of Blue Hill will be attending the selectmen’s meeting…to enforce the provisions of the ordinance by instructing the Town of Blue Hill to send a letter to the Maine Department of Agriculture requesting the State withdraw the lawsuit and recognize the authority of the Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance,” says St. Peter.
I feel pained whenever I hear about an outbreak of food-borne illness, especially when it involves children and is likely caused by a small committed producer. I don’t care what the product is. When it happens, it creates terrible suffering for all involved–the obvious suffering for children made ill (and their parents), and the suffering of the producer, who feels tremendous guilt, and faces the possibility of losing his or her livelihood.
We are seeing such a situation with Organic Pastures Dairy Co. right now.
The suffering is only compounded when various outsiders feel compelled to jump in and obtain some sort of revenge for previous hurts or slights or resentments. We saw examples of that after the arrests in the Rawesome Foods case.
I sense some of that happening now in the comments from some individuals following my previous post. It could be some are motivated by a desire to use this situation to educate and inform (especially about the shortcomings of our knowledge about pathogens and food outbreaks), and I think that is appropriate. It can be an important learning experience.
But to the extent that some are being driven by a sense of revenge, in hitting a guy when he’s down, all I can say is that I feel badly for you. Revenge rarely provides any kind of lasting satisfaction. Gwen Elderberry and Marietta Pellicano capture some of these concerns for me.
I can’t begin to analyze and unravel the Mark McAfee/Mary Martin/Bill Marler triangle. It has gone on so long, through so many phases, involving all manner of slights and misunderstandings, it would challenge the most sophisticated psychologist to make sense of. All I can say now is that something within me recoiled at seeing the 2006 photos of Chris Martin on life support on the newscast that Mary Martin linked to. And it wasn’t the shock of the photos–I’ve seen them before. I’m sure Martin has a cogent explanation for her motives, but there was something about hitting below the belt on that one, on misusing a child, on mixing politics with revenge.
Mark McAfee has definitely been a lightning rod during his years running OPDC, and he hasn’t always said the right or most soothing things at the right time. In the current situation, his inference that herdshare operations could be the source of the currentE.coli O157:H7 outbreak was ill advised, inappropriate, and almost certainly wrong.
To McAfee’s credit, though, he’s never avoided even the toughest questions, and that’s something you can’t say about too many business owners accused of producing food that sickens people. In the last few years, I believe he’s shown a genuine commitment to truly serious food safety standards. Sure, not everyone is going to agree with his vision, and that’s been a subject of very constructive debate on this blog.
My hope in this situation is merely that OPDC be treated by the regulators like any other food producer facing a possible outbreak crisis. No better and no worse. I know that is quite a fantastic hope in today’s highly politicized food-safety environment, in which raw dairy, in particular, is often singled out for special attention, and special punishment.
If you look at the link Milky Way provided (to suggest OPDC is not being “lynched”), to the timing and stages of the investigation into the cantaloupe outbreak that has sickened 72 and killed 13, you find that the farm was never shut down. It engaged in a voluntary recall, and its distributor stopped selling the product. But at the end of the process, it received a warning letter from the FDA, and presumably can re-open when it wants to. That’s not what happens to raw milk and raw cheese producers, even those that haven’t made a single individual sick (as in Morningland Dairy and Estrella Cheese).
The OPDC situation is still very much in a state of flux. Let’s not be too quick to pre-judge.
Food poisoning lawyer Bill Marler posted a link to data he’s accumulated over the last two years on dairy outbreaks. Curiously, there’s no analysis of the data, no totals at the end of the tables (despite the foreboding heading, “Dairy Unhinged”).
So I did a quick back-of-the envelope tally of the raw dairy outbreaks he’s identified (it includes pasteurized milk outbreaks as well), and came up with the following: During 2010, there were 158 illnesses attributed to raw dairy, and in 2011 so far, 39 illnesses. I left out two incidents he lists–the queso fresca illnesses in Utah attributed to “Mr. Cheese” that have been going on for years, without officials intervening, and the Wisconsin illnesses earlier this year from a CAFO dairy that inadvertently let some of its milk intended for pasteurization be fed to schoolchildren. (I predicted at the time the raw milk opponents would try to categorize that case as a raw milk problem.)
When I’m interviewed by media on the subject, I say there are generally 50 to 150 reported illnesses from raw dairy each year. It looks like 2010 and 2011 are roughly at the edges of my asessment. Those illnesses are in a total of 21,000 to 25,000 annual reported foodborne illnesses from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control each year.
The raw dairy illnesses are obviously a tiny fraction of the total reported illnesses–in the range of one-half of one per cent, typically. Ever wonder why the CDC, FDA, and others don’t provide data totals, and instead cherry pick particular numbers on outbreaks or specific cases? When the numbers suggest a reality that is different from the one they want to project, they ignore the numbers.