Walter Whitcomb, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural ResroucesThe  good-cop-bad-cop routine is one of the oldest in law enforcement. Talk  with me, goes the advice to the criminal suspect from the nice-guy cop, or I’ll  send in our junk yard dog, and you don’t want to deal with him. Lord knows what he’ll do to get you to cough up the real story, and he’ll make sure  you get a long jail sentence to boot.   

Regulators  from the Maine Department of Agriculture have been playing the  good-cop-bad-cop game with proponents of Food Sovereignty, in an effort  to convince them to back off from their fight on behalf of Dan Brown,  the farmer who has been sued in a test case over whether the Food  Sovereignty ordinances passed by eight Maine towns (including his town  of Blue Hill)  are legal. At the same time, the Maine regulators work closely with the federal regulators and, as I suggested in Part 1 of this series, have even indicated a preference for the federal hard line on food rights over their own governor’s inclination toward compromise. 

One  of the proponents they have played this good-cop-bad-cop game with is Heather Retberg, a farmer and one of the organizers of Maine’s Food Sovereignty initiative.  Like Brown, she has refused to apply for a state permit to sell raw  milk, asserting her right to sell privately, under the Food Sovereignty  ordinance passed last year by her town of Penobscot. But according to  nearly 700 pages of emails and other documents obtained by lawyers for  Dan Brown, the Maine Department of Agriculture has told Retberg she  could well be the next farmer sued by the state.   

In  correspondence with Retberg earlier this year, she questioned a Maine  ag official about whether the agency would be able to protect her from  possible enforcement action by the FDA. She attached information from an  owner of Estrella Cheese, which was shut down by the FDA in 2010.  Retberg said that Estrella was “a licensed, price winning cheese maker  in Washington state who had worked well and favorably with her Department of Agriculture, but was left unprotected from FDA aggression  and is still struggling through an awful ordeal and has ceased making  cheese and may yet need to sell the farm.”  

To  which Steve Giguere, a Maine Department of Agriculture program manager responded:  “If FDA attempts to regulate in-state sales of raw milk and  we can show results of high quality milk being produced by licensed  distributors who meet the standards for quality set out in the PMO  (Pasteurized Milk Ordinance) we can make a very good case that Federal  intervention is not necessary.”   

The  notion of the federal government becoming more actively involved in  controlling raw milk availability comes up in other documents. For  example, there is a May 2011 memo from the U.S. Centers for Disease  Control to state epidemiologists and public health veterinarians, that  said in part: “In 1987, the FDA prohibited the distribution of raw milk over state lines for direct sale to consumers. Despite the federal ban  on sale of raw milk across state lines and broad use of pasteurization  by the dairy industry, human illness and outbreaks associated with  consumption of unpasteurized products continue to occur. Raw milk is  still available for sale in many states, and CDC data shows that the  rate of raw milk-associated outbreaks is higher in states in which the  sale of raw milk is legal than in states where sale of raw milk is  illegal…To protect the health of the public, state regulators should  continue to support pasteurization and consider further restricting or  prohibiting the sale and distribution of raw milk and other  unpasteurized dairy products in their states.”    

Further evidence of a national organizing effort against raw milk comes up in several emails concerning attorney Bill Marler’s Real Raw Milk Facts site, and its efforts to gather national data on state laws covering raw milk. The CDC also promoted the Real Raw Milk Facts site with states like Maine, and in one email to its bureaucrats, Hal Prince, head of the Maine Department of Agriculture’s Quality Assurance and Regulations division, observed, “the realrawmilkfacts site is pretty eye opening. If you watch any of the video, I believe that we will be having more (and more intense) discussions over this issue in the upcoming legislative sessions especially since Maine allows the sale of unpasteurized milk and the sales are growing.”  

Given the intensity of Maine’s obsessiveness over raw milk, I felt a sense almost of comic relief when I came across an email exchange between a reporter with Food Safety News and Amy Robbins, an epidemiologist at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Last November, the reporter inquired into the number of outbreaks attributed to raw milk that had occurred in Maine over the last five years. To which Robbins replied, “In the past five years no outbreaks related to raw (unpasteurized) milk products have been identified in Maine.” But, she added hopefully, “outbreaks related to raw (unpasteurized) milk products have occurred in other states.”  

Might the FDA attempt to ban raw milk nationally? That possibility was raised by a number of people in 2010when debate was going on about all the additional power being conferred on the agency by the Food Safety Modernization Act. I’ll just say that I don’t buy the notion of a good cop or bad cop. If you are in the right and innocent of wrongdoing, you don’t try to justify your actions  by hanging your hat on either the good cop or the bad cop. In the end, they’ll both screw you.

(This is the third and concluding segment on “The Raw Politics of Raw Milk” from Maine, though I will be providing ongoing coverage of the Food Sovereignty situation there.)


I’ve just written a feature for Grist recapping the crackdown by Maine regulators on farmers over the Food Sovereignty situation