Joel Salatin, flanked by state Rep. Craig Hickman and dairy farmer Heather Retberg at a hearing on behalf of a Food Sovereignty amendment in Augusta, Maine.

(This post has been updated since it was originally published May 1.)

So Claravale is back on the market with its wonderful raw milk. In a candid report, it says that the campylobacter problem it experienced was traced to a single cow that otherwise seemed completely healthy.

I appreciate Claravale’s belated effort at transparency. But leading up to this turnaround, there was something about this situation that made me uncomfortable. It was the same thing that made me uncomfortable about the overall lack of transparency through two outbreaks in three years.

I finally realized what my discomfort was about when I saw a report out of Maine by Joel Salatin. He had gone to Augusta to testify before a legislative committee, in favor of an amendment to the state’s constitution that would legitimize, and protect, private food sales of all types between individual producers and individual consumers.

In the Facebook post, Salatin summarized: “This amendment, which must first pass a super majority in both houses and then go before the citizens of Maine in a referendum, gives standing to individuals who find government regulators standing between them and the free exercise of acquiring their food.”

This battle over Food Sovereignty was pioneered in Maine a half dozen years ago with a campaign backed by more than a dozen towns in the state that have passed Food Sovereignty ordinances. But the Maine Supreme Court essentially struck down one town’s law, so the persistent backers have gone the constitutional amendment route. Salatin’s account of testifying in Maine yesterday is well worth reading.

Now, back to my own personal conflict: How come I was down on Claravale for wanting to keep its problems “private,” while still supporting private food transactions between farmers and consumers? I realized as I read Salatin’s argument that we’re talking about the difference between public and private food producers.

It’s the same distinction that was made most notably in the court cases against Vernon Hershberger in Wisconsin and Alvin Schlangen in Minnesota in 2012 and 2013. (For background, do a search on this site on both farmers’ names.) Both these farmers argued, successfully, that because they were serving private groups of buyers, their farms weren’t subject to the same regulations as farmers who sell their products in Whole Foods or Kroger or the local health food store. Juries bought the argument and acquitted the farmers for failing to have licenses required of producers selling into the public marketplace.

Claravale is a public producer of food. It sells its raw milk in retail markets, under regulations of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, among other agencies. As much of a love affair as it has with its customers, it can’t limit its external communications to sending them an email here and there explaining that it’s been shut down for making a few people sick or that it’s back in the market.

One of the reasons many of us here are critical of corporate farms (like Foster Farm) and retailers (like Trader Joe’s) that operate in secret and refuse to release information about food safety is that we think they owe it to the public to be transparent. I’m afraid that when it’s a food company we adore, like Claravale, we need to be consistent.

If Claravale decides to transform itself into a herd share operation, servicing a core of regular customers on a direct delivery basis, then it has a much better case for limiting its external communications. But until then, Claravale would do well to go with the flow established by the Raw Milk Institute where members post their data about coliforms as a way of helping educate the public about the realities of safe milk.

Claravale transparency would also help negate damaging criticism from the anti-raw-milk crowd, which loves to yuk-yuk about such incidents as the dairy’s campylobacter outbreaks. Failing to be transparent just gives that crowd new opportunities to hammer home their contention that raw milk is inherently unsafe.

Trying to play both sides of the privacy issue is not the way to go.