For consumers of nutrient-dense foods who have assumed that it’s only farmers and managers of food clubs who are at risk in the growing good-food clampdown, the story of Rae Lynn Sandvig may help set things straight.
Sandvig is a suburban mother of four who lives outside Minneapolis, in Bloomington. She began drinking raw milk seven years ago, to counter some health problems, and soon she was buying five gallons every two weeks for her family. Gradually, like other raw milk drinkers, she graduated to grass-fed beef, organic veggies, wild Alaskan salmon, and other such foods.
As part of her enthusiasm for raw milk, she helped friends and neighbors gain access to milk by allowing Minnesota dairyman Michael Hartmann to park in her home’s driveway every couple weeks to make deliveries. That all worked out fine, till last June, when Hartmann was accused by Minnesota public health and agriculture officials of being the source of milk that made five raw milk drinkers ill (the numbers gradually increased to about fifteen).
Then the Minnesota Department of Agriculture went on what I have described as a “rampage” of collective punishment, that included shutting down a Minneapolis buying club and another dairy farmer unrelated to Hartmann.
It also included going after Rae Lynn Sandvig. I should say that Sandvig has remained silent about her identity over the last six months in an effort to maintain her privacy, even though pieces of her experience have been made public. But now she’s decided other people need to know what can happen even to ordinary people who become serious about obtaining nutrient-dense foods, and last Friday she spoke to me in her first public interview.
The whole nightmare began one morning in early June, when seven police and MDA investigators showed up at her house as she was finishing her shower, and presented her husband with a criminal search warrant.
They spent two hours going through the family’s refrigerator and questioning her about whether she was reselling milk, meat, and other food. She says she was “terrified, horrified, traumatized” by the home search, breaking down in tears in front of the seven investigators and police rummaging through her kitchen.
The event seemed even more threatening when she learned an MDA investigator had visited the homes of three of her neighbors who had shared in the milk and beef Hartmann delivered, seeking specifics about her food distribution practices. She says the investigator threatened these consumers with subpoenas that would require them to testify unless they allowed him into their homes to answer questions and look into their refrigerators, and then sign an affidavit listing foods they had acquired via Sandvig. The neighbors have since clammed up to her, she says, but one told her the investigator was particularly interested in packages of meat labeled “Not for Re-sale” on which the farmer Meat that is slaughtered or processed in a non-USDA-inspected facility is labeled this way to prevent its retail sale.
Then, just a few days ago, Sandvig received a registered letter from the MDA accusing her of “assisting in the sale of raw milk from your home in Bloomington” and offering her an “opportunity to be heard” in an “administrative meeting…before the department decides what if any enforcement action it will take against you for operating a food business without a license,” most notably “selling raw milk and selling food from unapproved sources.” Possible outcomes? “Criminal prosecution or administrative penalties,” the letter stated.
The meeting was originally scheduled for last week but is now being re-scheduled for January, Sandvig says. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund has agreed to represent her in the meeting and any proceedings.
There are lots of upsetting elements to this story, but what I find most disturbing is the questioning of neighbors. To threaten them with subpoenas unless they ratted on another neighbor, Sandvig, about how she acquires and distributes food is not unlike what goes on in totalitarian societies. There, secret police keep the populace in check by encouraging neighbors to report lawbreaking of any kind to the police. Lawbreaking, in such societies, generally include trivialities like what Sandig did, of dividing up meat or other foods she acquired in bulk, with neighbors.
Sandvig told me the experience has cast a pall on her relationships with those neighbors. One agreed initially to supply her with a copy of the affidavit the investigator pushed her to sign, and then renegged, ostensibly after consulting with an attorney who advised not sharing documents. As I said, this is basic secret police type stuff.
And now, the the so-called food safety legislation on the brink of passage in Congress, it seems likely we’ll see more such behavior. The legislation passed the U.S. Senate last evening, and is due to come up in the House likely tomorrow, after which the President has committed to signing it. The legislation will allow the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to hire some thousand of additional investigators, as well as strengthen cooperation with state agriculture authorities.
There’s more in an article I just wrote for Grist.