Why Are Family Farms Receiving More Governmental Scrutiny Now Than 15 Years Ago?
By Joanie Blaxter
“Why us?” raw milk drinkers moan. “And why now?”
That food safety authorities closely scrutinize raw milk producers has been well documented by the film Farmageddon. But the unanswered question remains—why has the attitude of food safety authorities towards raw milk consumption measurably shifted just within the last decade or so? Previously, for the most part, there was a fairly amicable relationship between farmers and their health department officials. As long as the numbers of customers remained small and there were no reported illnesses, the matter of safety was left between the farmer and the consumer.
Expensive legal investigations of small farmers producing raw milk and raw milk products, nationally, began appearing about the year 2000 (Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, among others). Locally, within the last year and a half, two separate multi-million-dollar cases have been filed by the state of California against Santa Paula–based family farmer Sharon Palmer (a former raw milk producer) and manager James Stewart of Los Angeles’ Rawesome Foods buying club.
But the latest surprise in what appears to be an increasing gulf between food safety authorities and small, sustainable, diversified farms that depend largely on direct sales to the public has been a bizarre political twist in the state of Michigan. As of April 1, 2012, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) declared all open-range pigs to be an “invasive species.” Possession of even a single open-range pig is now a felony in that state, punishable by incarceration for up to four years.
What is an “open-range pig?” Any pig with dark coloring. Any pig not raised in a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). Any pig that has access to the outdoors, roots in the dirt and gets sunshine on its back. In order to avoid being charged with a felony, two Michigan farmers were forced to slaughter their herds in April.
Michigan has received national media attention for this action. Four different laws have been filed to stop the implementation of this new law including one initiated by heritage pork farmer Mark Baker of Baker’s Green Acres (BakersGreenAcres.com) whose trial is expected in this summer. Baker says that if the law is fully enacted, it will effectively put him, and all heritage pork farmers in the state of Michigan, out of business.
Joseph O’Leary, Baker’s attorney, said “I think this is an unconstitutional order… To take what was six months ago an entirely legal activity, and suddenly people are felons over it. They’re not growing drugs, running guns or killing anybody; they’re raising animals… They haven’t done anything wrong here, and the DNR is treating them like they are hardened criminals.”
To anyone following what has become known locally as “the Rawesome case,” this sounds eerily familiar. Pete Kennedy of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund said that in this case there were neither complaints from customers nor illnesses of any kind related to the raw milk provided only to the members of the private buying club and never to the general public. Nevertheless, attorneys for Palmer and Stewart have consistently described their clients’ treatment by the state of California in both cases as similar to, if not worse than, that given to drug dealers.
Since, statistically, food contamination illnesses are traced far more often to large-scale monocrop farms and big business practices than to small farms, why do some family farms selling traditionally produced food appear to receive such a disproportionate amount of safety oversight?
Last year, there were no arrests made when 13 people died after eating Jensen Farm cantaloupes. Furthermore, when a salmonella outbreak at Taco Bell began last October, the Centers for Disease Control actually kept the information secret for three months. The restaurant chain received what could only be described as a slap on the wrist for sickening 68 individuals (as well as 155 the year before and 71 in 2006).
Palmer and Stewart, however, who have never been accused of causing any illness, have both been arrested twice and charged with numerous offenses, had their businesses raided multiple times and, according to their lawyers, been given bail comparable to what is offered to gang members going up for murder.
In regard to foodborne pathogen statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, David Gumpert, author of the book The Raw Milk Revolution and the blog The Complete Patient, reports “I found that, over the last decade, between 25 and 175 individuals have been reported ill each year from raw milk. Moreover, I found that the number of [raw milk] illnesses is generally in the vicinity of .5% [one-half of one per cent] of the total number of 21,000– 27,000 illnesses reported each year.”
Currently, on average, while 3% of all Americans drink raw milk, nevertheless, only .5% of all foodborne pathogen illnesses are attributable to raw milk consumption. Clearly, health statistics could not be the only driver behind the states’ relentless pursuit of particular raw milk producers, leaving the question—Could this major commitment of time, money and resources be due simply to the financial threat that raw milk sales represent to commercial dairy?
Although consumption is slowly rising, nevertheless, according to the National Milk Producers Federation, raw milk currently holds only 1% of total dairy sales in this country.
The more likely answer is related to how much state and federal governments have invested in the CAFO model over the last 15 years as well as the eternally revolving door that leads executives from the large-scale industrial food production industry into highlevel government positions and back again.
From 1997 to 2007, all types of factory CAFOs increased: 36.3% for hogs, 87.4% for broiler chickens, 93.4% for dairy cows, etc. During this decade, not only did the factory farming industry in this country benefit from governmental oversight that included misguided farm policies, unchecked mergers and soft environmental rules, but dairy factory farming doubled, seeing more growth than any other sector. Ironically, this gigantic increase in the number and size of dairy CAFOs is contradicted by the fact that pasteurized dairy sales have been falling for several decades now, most likely due to the steady increase in cases of (pasteurized) dairy allergies.
With that level of financial commitment over a 10-year period, one might assume that the government does not want the consumer suddenly getting educated and preferring artisanally produced raw milk—or really, artisanally produced food of any kind. In response to the spike in the number and size of dairy factory farms, raw milk producers may have been placed first into the political cross hairs. If so, does the attack on heritage pork producers in Michigan represent a next step by agribusiness corporations and their allies in governmental positions?
As consumer preference for community-raised, traditional food increases, the local food sovereignty movement will doubtless continue to bump up against the states’ commitment to public safety. Unfortunately, at the public executive level that commitment is also being represented by individuals with deeply entrenched financial ties to agribusiness industry. Until that is no longer the political reality, the outcome between the national movement seeking more local control over food production and that of the states’ interest in public safety is likely to remain as clear as mud.
For details on the enormous growth and negative impact of CAFOs in this country over the course of a single decade, read Food and Water Watch’s report Factory Farm Nation: How America Turned Its Livestock Farms into Factories and check out their Map of Factory Farms in US. www.Factoryfarmmap.org
Joanie Blaxter is the Ventura chapter leader for the Weston A. Price Foundation and a member of the Ventura Ag Futures Alliance. After raising her daughter by herself in a small town in Vermont, she moved to Ojai where she daily enjoys a year-round growing season, snow-free driveway and goats, sheep and chickens in her backyard.