The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is rapidly challenging its Wisconsin cousin as the FDA’s poster boy for how to threaten and intimidate producers and consumers of nutrient-dense foods.

Heidi Kassenborg, director of the MDA's Dairy and Food Inspection division. In the latest episode in a two-year-long series of aggressive punitive actions, the state has sent warning letters to at least four consumers, alleging they violated Minnesota laws in connection with selling raw milk, and selling “adulterated” and “misbranded” foods.  

In addition, a local prosecutor has, at the MDA’s request, filed nine misdemeanor criminal charges against the farmer whose milk the consumers were alleged to have re-sold, produced by Michael Hartmann. A state judge yesterday took under advisement the charges against Hartmann, which included selling raw milk, uninspected meat, and ungraded butter. He could move the charges along toward a trial, or dismiss some or all of them.  

The timing of the letters to the consumers is intriguing, coming just a couple weeks in advance of the trial of a second Minnesota farmer, Alvin Schlangen, on four misdemeanor charges in connection with supplying food to members of his private food club. His trial is scheduled to begin Monday May 14 in Minneapolis, and supporters have scheduled a demonstration of support before the trial that morning. The demonstration will follow on a Food Rights Workshop being held the afternoon of May 13.

One of the letters, to suburban Minneapolis parents Brad and Melinda Olson, begins: “In March 2012 the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) concluded an investigation that revealed you participated in the sale of unpasteurized milk and other foods requiring you to have a Minnesota food handler’s license. You were found operating as a drop site during 2010 for a farm located near Gibbon, Minnesota.” (That is Hartmann’s farm.)

After going through the particulars of the laws and regulations the Olsons allegedly violated, the warning letter concludes: “MDA warns that should you continue to sell or distribute unpasteurized or other foods illegally in the future you will be subject to administrative penalties, criminal prosecution, or other enforcement remedies available to MDA.”

The letters are signed by James Roettger, an MDA compliance officer, who  has appeared on this blog in connection with raw milk seizures in the past. It is copied to Heidi Kassenborg, director of the MDA’s Dairy and Food Inspection division. Kassenborg didn’t return a call I made seeking further explanation about the letters. (She was one of the anti-raw-milk participants in the Harvard Law School debate on raw milk last February.)

A similar letter went to Will Winter, a veterinarian and one of the founders of Traditional Foods Minnesota, a food club shuttered by the MDA in June 2010.

A third went to Rae Lynn Sandvig, a suburban Minneapolis mom and teacher, who had her home searched in 2010 by MDA and police detectives because she allowed Hartmann to park in her driveway when he dropped off food to her and neighbors. She was subsequently summoned for a hearing, and then given a warning letter based on the MDA’s conclusion that she was illegally selling raw milk and other foods. Her latest warning letter contends she has continued to illegally sell food, and ends a little differently than the other letters, noting that,  “MDA will consider this a subsequent offense and there could be higher penalties.”

Needless to say, the consumers are outraged.  They deny selling food, or even collecting money, saying they simply allowed their residences to be used as drop sites for other food club members to pick up their orders.

Will Winter’s reaction was typical: “Like everyone, we are stunned that the government has this much time and money to spend on a few farmers and their helpers in the city…By using their scary legalistic and somewhat impossible to understand language, they warned us of criminal punishment to us, warned us that we cannot sell ANY food, and warned us that we are still under investigation. It’s clear, especially from the timing and breadth of the warning letters, that they want to stomp on those of us who are planning on supporting Alvin, the Hartmanns or other uppity farm criminals. Perhaps the most strange of everything in the letter was how the English language was twisted into implicating that we were actually ‘selling’ the raw milk ourselves. By literal extension of this ‘law’,  if you were standing in a store and a person, say one who was impaired or in a wheelchair,  asked you to hand the money to the clerk, you yourself would indeed be ‘selling’ that person the product.”  

Minnesota has for the last two years been on what can only be termed a rampage against farmers, food clubs, and individual consumers obtaining food privately. The main focus has been raw milk, but the farmers being targeted provide beef, chicken, eggs,butter, and other such products as well.

Minnesota’s campaign began two years ago this month, when the MN Department of Public Health linked the farm owned by Michael Hartmann with illnesses from E.coli O157:H7 in its raw milk. As I described in a post in March, the state’s battle with Hartmann has been going on since at least 2001, and has carried on for years, when no illnesses were associated with the farm.

The MDA used the illnesses associated with the farm’s milk as an excuse to go after Alvin Schlangen’s farm; Traditional Foods Minnesota, the buying club; and Rae Lynn Sandvig. Having encountered little meaningful opposition, the MDA is expanding its efforts to more consumers.

It’s important to understand that the MDA’s campaign is part of a national campaign directed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that has seen major assaults on farmers in Wisconsin, on the  Grassfed on the Hill Food Club and farmer Dan Allgyer in Maryland and Pennsylvania, on the Rawesome Food Club in California and a number of its prominent supporters; and now again on Minnesota farmers and consumers.

Once we see it as a national campaign, we can appreciate how the FDA and its state cronies are systematically upping the ante. As just one indication, in the Grassfed on the Hill food club case, agents surreptitiously entered onto the properties of consumers who served as drop points, but the FDA didn’t threaten the property owners with criminal charges. Having successfully gotten away with the undercover investigation and putting farmer Dan Allgyer out of business, the agency, via the MDA, can now focus on testing out threats of criminal charges against individual consumers who offer their property as drop points. If they pull that little escalation off, the FDA and various state henchmen will move onto even more aggressive tactics. They could well include armed raids on food club members’ homes. Maybe tax evasion charges against food club members alleged to have “sold” food to other members. They could try to seek some serious jail time for food club members engaged in “selling” the “adulterated” food.

To the extent they see little meaningful opposition to their tactics, they will continue escalating. It’s all about intimidation and control. That’s why it’s important they see ever more serious opposition at the show trials they are putting on, beginning with that of Alvin Schlangen May 14. The Raw Milk Freedom Riders will be there. You should, too, if you possibly can.