The Wisconsin attorney general’s office sent dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger a little invite this past week. It came from an assistant attorney general, Eric D. Defort.  

“I am writing to invite you to meet with me at the Sauk County Sheriff’s Office at 1300 Lange Court in Baraboo, WI, on Thursday, December 1, 2011, at 10:00 a.m. so that I may inform you of the progress of the investigation of your dairy and retail food establishment. Feel free to bring an attorney to the meeting.”

Vernon HershbergerHershberger is the Wisconsin dairy farmer, you may remember, who cut the seals placed on his coolers in 2010 by inspectors from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. He doesn’t think he wants to have this little tête-à-tête with the AG. His reason? “I don’t have a retail store,” he tells me. “I have a private club.” He has nearly 200 members in his club, who pay an annual membership fee for the privilege of obtaining their food privately.

DATCP is feeling newly emboldened by a state court decision by Patrick Fiedler in August. So emboldened, it has taken to sending out letters to farmers selling privately, telling them to button up, get licenses.  

“On August 17, 2011 Judge Patrick J. Fiedler of the Wisconsin Circuit Court issued a decision in the case of Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund…” the letter to one farmer (whom I don’t have permission to identify) starts.

“The judge’s decision essentially stated that a store which exists solely for the purpose of selling food and beverages to members is not exempt from the requirement to hold a retail food establishment license. Upon issuance of this decision, we have reviewed all the open cases which relate to the matter contended in this lawsuit. We believe that the decision reached by Judge Fiedler is relevant to you; our records indicate that you may be operating an unlicensed retail food establishment which sells unpasteurized milk and dairy products and an unlicensed dairy processing plant which produces unpasteurized dairy products.”

Indeed, DATCP is so emboldened it isn’t even waiting for an appeals court to rule on the Fiedler decision. What’s the rush? Maybe the same factors that have pushed the Maine Dept. of Agriculture to go after Dan Brown, a Blue Hill farmer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration sees the demand for private food, for food sovereignty, for raw dairy, skyrocketing. It worries that things are getting away from it. It is pushing the states–you want all that luscious green money we are handing out in joint agreements, training, enforcement? You go after small farmers, hit them with all you’ve got.
I haven’t asked him, but maybe Hershberger would rather attend a second event being sponsored by the Raw Milk Freedom Riders. This one will challenge the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s prohibition on shipping raw milk across state lines, with at least five mothers transporting milk from Wisconsin to Illinois, on Thursday, December 8 (details at the Raw Milk Freedom Riders web site). The moms will be acting as agents, distributing the milk at a rally at noon that day in Chicago.

The first such event, you may recall, was held November 1, and involved mothers transporting raw milk from Pennsylvania to Maryland, for their own personal use. This time, the moms will be expanding the agenda. Asserting their right to access the foods of their choice, and to ask a friend or neighbor (or “agent,” as the lawyers refer to it) to obtain their food for them.

I guarantee, the Raw Milk Freedom Riders will have a much more fun event than the Wisconsin AG.
Okay, a last word on the Organic Pastures Dairy Co. situation…Just kidding, I know there won’t be a last word on that for a long time. But in the spirit of a last word, I think one of the big problems when a crisis like this occurs, especially in the raw milk arena, is that various issues get mixed and matched, and we lose sight of what’s really happening. Here are three important ones in this situation.

1. Acknowledging the 2006 illnesses. Believe me, I don’t like to be agreeing with Bill Marler, but the case is strong that OPDC’s milk made kids sick. Let’s acknowledge that, and move on. To the extent we continue debating it, we distract from issues that are likely to recur here, like uneven and unfair enforcement of regulations against raw dairy producers.

2. Related to the previous point, let’s be prepared to focus on the real issues. Mary Martin inadvertently brings up the issue of unequal enforcementone when she says in a comment following my previous post, about a lettuce recall, “This is how recalls work when there is not an illness. It is no different than all the hamburger recalls that occur when a pathogen is found during routine testing.” No, that is not how recalls work when raw dairy is involved. Look at the cases of Morningland Dairy and Estrella Cheese. Recalls are used to shutter producers. Focusing on 2006 allows the apologists for the anti-raw-dairy crowd–Marler, Martin, Milky Way– to distract from such real issues. They will never ever say a word of criticism about those outrages when they can keep focusing on the 2006 illnesses. These outrages may well come up again for OPDC in the current situation–let’s be prepared for the authorities to try to keep OPDC shuttered for an extended period, regardless of what evidence about the current situation shows. Same for the issue of access to nutrient-dense food, which Marietta Pellicano brings up. That is a huge driver in this whole struggle, but once again, it gets lost when we are debating what happened and didn’t happen in 2006.

3. Learning more about the role of pathogens in causing illness. I agree with Gwen Elderberry and others that there are huge gaps in our knowledge about pathogens. We need to learn more, and we will certainly learn much more in the near future. We just can’t use that problem to suggest that OPDC can’t be held accountable, in 2006 or possibly today. OPDC operates in the public arena, has all the licenses and permits and equipment that are required by the regulators to produce raw milk. It has to play by the same rules as all public producers.