David E. Gumpert  @  ChelseaGreen

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As Raw Milk and Food Rights Initiatives Spread, It Becomes More Important to Watch Your Back; Food “Sovereignty” in VT?

Posted on Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011 at 1:52 pm by David E. Gumpert

During the question-and-answer period following my talk at the Northeast Organic Food Association-NY conference in Saratoga last month–about the government-industry campaign to rid us of raw milk–a man piped up to say he ran a herdshare operation in New York, and was wondering about the Meadowsweet Dairy case.

A herdshare in New York state? That piqued my interest. I had thought Meadowsweet was the closest thing to a herdshare New York had, with its limited-liability-company organization. I had to let him know Meadowsweet hadn’t done well in appeal–last fall it was denied its final option for appeal of a lower court decision that Meadowsweet couldn’t operate outside the state’s regulatory jurisdiction, with its 100-plus shareholders.

Afterwards, I spoke with the herdshare operator, Mike Thorpe, and he told me his is one of a handful of herdshares around the state. His herdshare has about 150 members in the Buffalo area, with a waiting list of 100. The farm has private sales arrangements covering other products and crops as well (including citrus from a second farm it runs in Florida).

He says he’s been hassled over the years by Ag & Markets, which has advised him to obtain a permit to sell milk off his farm. He says he has avoided the permit route because Ag & Markets is “trying to force permit holders out of business by finding bad bugs in their milk,” a reference to the agency’s listeria hysteria campaign over the last five years.

All of which prompted me to get in touch with Meadowsweet principal Steve Smith about where his dairy stands. He told me his LLC sold all its cows to the shareholders, who board them at Smith’s farm…as a cowshare. Moreover, the long case he and his wife, Barb, endured, actually did lead tosigns of  positive judicial oversight that he feels could be helpful ongoing–in particular, limitations on Ag & Markets search warrants, which originally had been open-ended.

I have agonized for some time about whether I should report on these New York developments. Both farmers indicated they were okay with me identifying them and finally I decided that, yes, I should feel comfortable because, last I heard, we still have the right in this country to drink milk from our own cows.

I have similarly wondered if I should discuss the various state initiatives that have come up in the last few months to explicitly legalize various aspects of raw milk distribution and sales. Same fear for me: publicizing efforts to expand raw milk availability brings out the regulators, dairy industry, and various professional apologists in opposition.

But then I realized that these people are going to be out there anyway, as they have been in helping defeat initiatives in Wisconsin, Wyoming, Humboldt County, CA, and other places.

I saw where one of the anti-raw-milk apologists referred to the “raw milk lobby” pushing so many initiatives. That is truly funny. You just don’t get more grass roots than the state initiatives being pushed around the country. Maybe some day we’ll truly have a lobby–though I don’t know if that would be a good or bad thing. Probably good if its mission is securing more food rights for us.

Here is a brief rundown on the initiatives out there:

  • Massachusetts: There are two proposals, one to legalize deliveries to customers of raw milk from dairies with raw milk permits. This grows out of the state’s efforts last year to shut down raw milk buying clubs that deliver milk as consumers’ agents. Another proposal would specifically allow herd shares, which aren’t explicitly mentioned in Massachusetts’ laws. This effort grows out of the state’s effort to force a one-cow herdshare run by Brigitte Ruthman out of business.
  • New Jersey: The state’s prohibition on all raw milk sales would end under legislation that would legalize sales from farms with raw milk permits, as well as sanction cow share arrangements. The legislation just passed a key committee vote.
  • Minnesota: Proposed legislation would clarify vague language regarding farm sales, allowing not only sales from the farm, but delivery to consumers at their homes, farmers markets, and other such community gatherings. Moreover, it would recognize such direct sales as “private contracts.” This proposal is a response to the Michigan Department of Agriculture’s interference with deliveries to consumers from the farm of Michael Hartmann.
  • Texas: Similarly, raw milk sales could be expanded under proposed legislation from the farm via private delivery to consumers.
  • Wisconsin: The place where proposed legislation allowing sales from the farm suffered a big defeat last spring, with a veto by the governor, is expected to see new legislation with similar provisions. In addition, new legislation is expected that would allow unlicensed dairies with fewer than twenty cows to sell raw milk and other dairy products.

Certainly the opponents will organize. They’ll come up with all kinds of excuses–delivery is dangerous, there’s not enough testing, cowshares are a ruse, and on and on.

These opponents have a big problem–consumers mostly don’t share the anti-raw-milk hysterics that will be offered. That’s why there’s no grass roots opposition, only the opposition of paid regulators and the well financed dairy industry.

But the opposition has one important advantage. It usually has an “in” based on political ties or campaign contributions to a key legislative committee member or the governor, who must sign off on any legislation. This was the situation in the ultimate defeats in California (SB 201), Wisconsin, and Wyoming, despite evidence of widespread popular and legislative support. And this is what raw milk proponents need most to be on the lookout for.

My view is that proponents will prevail, if they’re willing to be persistent, and not be discouraged by some initial defeats in the face of well connected and financed opponents. Each time proponents come back, they come back stronger, with more legislators convinced that opposing food freedom is a losing proposition with voters. Eventually, the opponents will come to realize this issue isn’t going away. Eventually, they’ll decide to do what’s right, and safe for consumers, and they’ll work constructively with dairy farmers and consumers to do what’s sensible.
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Might there be another way to help small food producers escape the burdens of the new federal food safety legislation? A group in Vermont is pushing “food sovereignty” as a means of avoiding a takeover of the state’s food regulating powers by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. As I understand it, legislation providing such sovereignty would exempt all producers whose food is sold on an intrastate basis. That would cover raw milk as well. The federal food safety legislation signed into law by President Obama last month allows for small-producer exemptions based on a complex formula according to whether producers have revenues under $500,000 annually and sell at least 50% of their products directly to consumers.

Continue reading the full post at The Complete Patient.

rawmilkrevolution David E. Gumpert is the author of The Raw Milk Revolution.
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