A farm illustration from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, And Consumer Protectin web site.The latest word out of Wisconsin (as Lykke points out following my previous post) is that a prosecutor there is considering filing criminal charges in the case of a campylobacter outbreak being blamed on raw milk from the Zinniker Family Farm. According to a local report, a prosecutor has been hearing from officials of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The Wisconsin agriculture authorities no doubt couldn’t wait to get in to see the local prosecutor, because they are almost certainly licking their chops over this case. How can I say that? Because internal emails about their meetings with officials of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with agriculture officials in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, earlier this year provide an account of their plans to crack down on raw milk. They’ve been looking for the necessary excuse…and now they have it.

It’s kind of an involved story, which I recount in my upcoming book, The Raw Milk Revolution, but bear with me.

I learned about the internal emails from Max Kane, the founder of a Wisconsin raw milk private club known as Belle’s Lunchbox. His club is one of about twenty whose members reside in Illinois. Another club is run by Richard Hebron, the Michigan farmer who was the target of the October 2006 sting operation that helped launch the state and federal campaign against raw milk.

The Wisconsin DATCP began demanding information from Belle’s Lunchbox in late 2008, when a Chicago-area boy who might have drunk raw milk from the club’s cows showed some symptoms of Brucellosis, a dangerous bovine disease that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says can be passed to humans via consuming raw milk. After extensive testing, the boy was found not to have Brucellosis, but that didn’t end the matter, as state authorities in late 2008 and early 2009 continued demanding information from Belle’s Lunchbox, including its list of members. 

Max Kane responded with a Cease and Desist order addressed to DATCAP.  Two weeks later he was served at his home with a subpoena to appear before Wisconsin’s Department of Justice and the DATCP to produce documents and answer questions pertaining to him and Belle’s Lunchbox.

Suspecting that the FDA was behind the harassment, Max in May 2009, filed a petition in the state requesting “…all records, of any and all communications, from January 2005 to present, between DATCP, and the FDA, with regards to Max Kane and/or Belle’s Lunchbox.”

Max is a big proponent of raw milk­-during the winter of 2008 he bicycled more than 3,400 miles across the U.S. (from Virginia to California) as part of a campaign to further its acceptance. During this 50 day crusade, raw milk made up 85% of his diet. He is in the process of developing a film and a book about his cross-country trip.

In June 2009, Max received a package from a DATCP attorney with eight pages of email communication between Wisconsin’s DATCP and FDA officials in Chicago.

The e-mails suggested, first, that state officials weren’t totally pleased that the boy’s tests had come back negative for Brucellosis. Robert Ehlenfeldt, administrator of the Wisconsin DATCP’s Division of Animal Health, wrote on December 19, 2008, to several of his state colleagues: “I hope I don’t come to resent making this statement but the Brucellosis issue may have been the simplest part of this problem and could have been a pretty good lever to use to push the raw milk issue.”

But the emails also suggested that the regulators had another approach in mind once the Brucellosis case fizzled: to go after all 20 Illinois raw milk buyers clubs. A February 2009 email with the subject, “FDA Raw Milk Conference Call,” summarized the call from DATCP’s perspective. The call had included four DATCP officials, nine FDA officials, two representatives from the Indiana Board of Animal Health, three from the Illinois Department of Public Health, and one from the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

Front and center in their discussions were both Richard Hebron and Mark McAfee, per this summary material: “Scott MacIntire [District Director] and Bill Weissinger [Chicago District Special Assistant] discussed FDA-CHI activities. They have done some Internet searching and identified about 20 milk clubs in Illinois. They prefer to address one person or group at a time and want to start with Richard Hebron, Family Farm Co-op, in Michigan who may be picking milk up at the Hochstettler Farm in Indiana for delivery in the Chicago area. Hebron has been prosecuted in Michigan for raw milk sales. Hochstettler was sent a warning letter for FDA Detroit for interstate delivery of raw milk

“There was some discussion on where to go from here.

“Michelle Svonkin from FDA-OCC [Office of Chief Counsel] gave a short rundown on Organic Pastures prosecution in California.

“Larry Stringer [of DATCP] spoke with CFSAN [FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition] about the raw milk issue. They indicated that raw milk sales are a high priority to them as a significant health risk.”

This strategy session shows clearly the preference of the FDA and state agencies to target one raw milk producer or distributor at a time, presumably to send a message to deter others from thinking about producing or distributing raw milk. And the focus on Richard Hebron because he was previously “prosecuted” is curious. He was never prosecuted, never even went before a judge. But apparently because he was targeted by Michigan authorities for an ill-considered sting operation, he’s now akin to an ex-felon­–an easy target that’s easy to justify to the public because, after all, authorities went after him once before in a big way.  And the federal prosecution of Organic Pastures has become a neat template for others that may well follow.

Now, bear in mind, the officials are likely aware that Max Kane obtained the incriminating emails last spring. So they’ve likely abandoned their plan to go after Richard Hebron, at least for the time being. Now, along comes the Zinniker Farm. A stroke of good fortune, from the authorities’ perspective. They can use this case as an excuse to crack down on raw milk in the state, and say that the plans against Richard Hebron were just idle chatter.

It’s seemed quiet of late in the government’s war on raw milk. But you can be sure that wheels are turning.