I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I traveled 2,500 miles in large measure to snap a photo of a reclusive bureaucrat.
Well, I guess I can blame it on TPTB–they drove me to it.
Here’s the story. For many months I’ve been trying to obtain information about John Sheehan, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Division of Plant and Dairy Food Safety. I’ve taken to referring to him as the nation’s Milk Czar, since he has been orchestrating much of the anti-raw-milk activity that’s been going on around the country the last few years, and is notable for his frequent quote, “Drinking raw milk is like playing Russian roulette with your health.”
Early this year, I made a formal request of FDA to interview him in connection with the book I am writing about raw milk. No surprise—I was turned down. But what was curious to me was that the agency provided only the sketchiest of biographical information.
In its six sentences, it said Sheehan was a patent lawyer who joined the FDA in 2000 after serving as “a mid-level manager within the dairy industry for 17 years. He has worked for some of America’s largest and most progressive dairy foods organizations.” When I asked for the names of these “most progressive dairy foods organizations,” it refused to provide them. It also said it had no photograph of him.
If you do a Google search on Sheehan, you don’t find much. Nothing about his career, and no photos. (There was one site that supposedly had photos of him at a dairy gathering in Poland, but there were two different guys identified as Sheehan.)
Then, in February, I went to the raw milk symposium outside Washington sponsored by the International Association for Food Safety, where Sheehan was scheduled to be a speaker, expecting to meet him. Lo and behold, I was told he canceled out the Friday before without giving a reason. (An FDA spokesperson later said he didn’t attend because there is outstanding litigation—wouldn’t say what—but presumably a civil suit still pending against Organic Pastures Dairy Co.)
By this time, I’m beginning to wonder: Is this guy for real, or just a fun-loving figment of the bureaucracy’s imagination? So when I heard about the gathering of the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments being held this weekend in Orlando, I figured what the heck, let’s give it another shot. Yes, I did want to see Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures make his pitch for lifting the ban on interstate shipments of raw milk (more on that in anoter post).
But this thing with Sheehan was becoming something of an obsession. Sheehan didn’t attend Mark McAfee’s presentation early this morning, but an associate of his, Cindy Leonard, the presenter of the notorious 2005 FDA slide presentation that slams raw milk, was on the committee hearing the McAfee proposal.
Afterwards, I tried to engage Leonard, but she refused, saying there was litigation that prevented her from commenting, and she walked away from me. A few minutes later, I saw her in the hallway, and tried again, saying I just wanted to ask her about the Division of Dairy and Plant Food Safety. This time, she turned and actually started running from me, which was a tad awkward, since she was wearing high heels.
But at a general session following McAfee’s presentation, I got someone to point out my real prey, John Sheehan. I had to listen a lengthy presentation about parliamentary rules, but finally, I got my chance. I decided to snap my photos first, before engaging in conversation, and you can see the results. (The blog software isn’t cooperating fully; the bottom photo happened first.) I wish I could say Sheehan was being cute by putting the notebook in front of his face, but I don’t think he was. The photo taken immediately after he relented I think was just an effort on his part to keep from embarrassing himself in front of other people there. The reason I don’t think he’s being funny is because this was my conversation with Sheehan after taking the photos:
“Hi, I’m David Gumpert.”
“Yes, I know who you are.”
“I wonder if we could chat for just a few moments.”
“Because I don’t want to.”
Well, you have to give the guy credit for being honest. No more funny stuff about “pending litigation.” He just doesn’t want to be f****ing bothered. If a guy doesn’t want to talk to you, not much you can do, even if you do help pay his salary. But at least I do know one thing: John Sheehan really does exist.