Articles By This Author
Angling for a Fight: MA Ag Bullies Try to Run a Tiny Raw Dairy Out of Business...But Brigitte Ruthman Has Other Ideas
The Complete Patient - August 12, 2010
By David Gumpert
Lots of raw milk drinkers I meet when I'm out speaking before various food and green organizations about the ever-increasing intensity of the crackdown on raw milk and nutrient-dense foods tell me, "Well, if it gets real bad, I can always go out and buy my own cow or goat." It that's your fall-back strategy, the story I'm about to tell about the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture's renewed crackdown on raw milk may make you squirm just a little.
Last we heard from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, its paper pushers were taking the summer off from going after raw milk producers. At least that's what MDAR's commissioner, Scott Soares, supposedly told his pals at the Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association in June. The general reading in Massachusetts was that the heat had gotten a little too intense from the May 10 Boston Common demonstration and followup ag hearing opposing the effort to squash buying clubs. Soares' strong suggestion in his statement to NOFA-MA was that the bureaucrats wanted to wait till after the elections in November, when politicians would be less inclined to respond to constituent complaints.
I assumed the hacks were just enjoying the beautiful summer we're having in the Northeast, taking afternoons off to go to the beach, maybe kicking their dogs when the bullying urge overcame them. So much for that theory. Seems you can't keep good bullies down, and the ones over at MDAR have been busy as bees hatching a major new crime-stopping initiative: put a one-milking-cow Massachusetts dairy owned by Brigitte Ruthman out of business. Ruthman's dairy in the Berkshires, Joshua's Farm, yesterday received a cease-and-desist letter (see below) from MDAR ordering it to discontinue supplying raw milk to three herdshare members.
Now, mind you, there's nothing in the Massachusetts laws that mentions herdshares. Just as there's nothing that mentions buying clubs, which have been the MDAR's other obsession since the first of the year.
Nor has there been anything secretive about Ruthman's venture. She's had an MDAR inspector out to her farm to advise her on how to qualify for a permit to sell raw milk from her farm. The advice, she says, was contradictory, suggesting she needed to spend many thousands of dollars on a new septic system and replacing wood floors with plastic, and then suggesting maybe not.
In May, she was one of 50 people who testified in front of MDAR's commissioner, and stated, "I might be the only person in The Commonwealth to have launched a dairy enterprise in the current mine-filled landscape. I brought back land that hadn't been farmed in years...My personal investment in this business is now over $60,000. I am nurturing a small herd of milking shorthorn cattle on pasture. In order for me to offer their milk for sale, under current regulations, I must sell part ownership of the cow to a buyer who then agrees to pay me for the upkeep."
She only began milking her first cow in April, after it gave birth. Pete Kennedy of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund helped her draw up the herdshare agreement she's used with her three members, who heard about her via word of mouth. While Ruthman had spoken about her herdshare in front of the ag commish Soares in May, MDAR says in the cease-and-desist that its hard-charging investigators learned about the herdshare via the Weston A. Price Real Milk web site. You just can't keep good detectives down, it seems.
If Soares and his bully crew expected Ruthman to roll over and stop milking her cow, they may have misjudged...just like they've misjudged pretty much everything--especially the public outrage--in this entire shameful crackdown. While the owners of the four buying clubs targeted earlier this year with cease-and-desist orders have been mulling over their options, Ruthman says she's already decided, and the answer is no, as in, "This is bullying and harassment. I'm going to fight them."
She definitely has a fighting attitude, and maybe that's because she's a seasoned journalist, covering the courts for Waterbury's Republic-American in nearby Connecticut. She's been all over me for not being tougher on the MDAR for its anti-small-farm attitude. At the May hearing, after I testified that MDAR should leave the raw milk situation as the agency found it on the first of the year, Ruthman stated, "With all due respect to Mr. Gumpert, who just said leave the system the way it is because it's fine- I offer that it is not fine. If I walk a cow from my farm down the road to Connecticut, her milk taken on Connecticut land would fall under another set of rules- I could perhaps sell it through a retail business for instance, not so in Massachusetts. The rule book you sent me is two inches thick- filled with rules that are open to interpretation."
Given what's just happened, I'd say Ruthman has a valid point. I'm certainly not going to argue with her. I'll leave that to Soares, who inexplicably has just gone much deeper into that can of worms he opened with his assault on buying clubs. Now he's dealing with someone who isn't intimidated by bullies.
By the way, NOFA-MA is sponsoring a raw milk symposium on Friday morning, featuring Sally Fallon of the Weston A. Price Foundation and Pete Kennedy of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund as principal speakers. Maybe they can explain how we handle it when the food police come calling for that cow or goat we are using for our own milk.
Read the whole article here...
One More Time:You Can Get Sick From Raw Milk...But Why The Political Merry-Go-Round?
The Complete Patient
By David Gumpert
August 8, 2010
It's been quite a few years since I've gotten sick from bad food. I have vague memories of the times it's happened, the memories being primarily around the after-taste of the bad food for the three or four days I was sick--some bad tomatoes one time, some bad shrimp another time. I usually had some idea where the tainted food came from, the restaurant or the party at which I'd eaten the bad stuff.
One time it happened to me, along with several other parents, after visiting day at my children's overnight camp. Some bad chicken served at lunch. I felt worst for the camp's owners, since that was a hell of a way to have visiting day turn out. And because none of the children had gotten sick over several years, I could realistically assume it was a one-time problem. It never occurred to me in any of these situations to try to "do" something about the problem, like take legal action.
Those memories of bad food years ago came back to me as I read Dave Augenstein's candid account of getting sick from raw milk, to the point he was still feeling ill while teaching at a local food conference about the benefits of raw milk. He figured out what the problem was--that he'd bought milk from a dairy that didn't take good enough care in its milk production.
But rather than take what has become one of the knee-jerk reactions to food illness--push legal action to force a financial settlement, or advocate tough legal controls--he decided to provide guidance to raw milk drinkers about how to locate a safe supply of raw milk. He also decided to try to do a better job of evaluating his own choice of raw dairy next time around.
We're in such a bad political and cultural place, though, that Augenstein's approach is likely to be viewed through the prism of raw milk politics. For the anti-raw-milk crowd, it's an admission by a raw milkie that he got sick. And from some in the pro-raw-milk crowd, it can't be--he's too quick to blame the raw milk.
Why can't we just look at Augenstein's situation as simply a guy who got sick from food? Try to learn from it, and move on.
Unfortunately, as a number of people who commented on my previous post suggest, the entire food illness/food safety situation has gone crazy. Lawyers spewing out endless reports of food-borne illness--almost celebrating those illnesses even as they profess outrage or upset-- with the main intent being to pull new clients in before their competitors. This is partly a function of the Internet's power to throw instant information out, but it's also a function of the general fear-mongering that's taken over our society.
Unlike Mark McAfee, WI Raw Milk Consumer, and others, I don't see Bill Marler, Fred Pritzker and others as the villains. They are merely the inevitable results of a system focused obsessively on pathogens as the be all and end all of food problems, and the source of big pay days from our legal system.
It's a system in which the individual has no responsibility. I mean, if you eat ground beef from Wal-Mart, you have to understand that you are more than likely eating the meat of sick animals which have spent their lives standing around in their manure, tainted with E.coli 0157:H7. Same thing with chicken--more than three-fourths are estimated to be contaminated with campylobacter. Okay, maybe a lot of people don't understand these realities, but that's only because our educational system and media have failed, and need to get busy telling people the truth.
But our system is based on views like these from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack: "Until we get the number of food-borne illnesses down to zero, and the number of hospitalizations down to zero, and the number of deaths down to zero, we still have work to do."
This is a joke, much like the new president of Colombia who was inaugurated this weekend stating that one of his goals is to eradicate poverty.
We don't even know what the true extent of the food safety problem is. The government keeps saying 76 million people get sick from food-borne illness each year, yet fewer than .5% are hospitalized or die. That means more than 75.5 million are getting sick, but having similar experiences to what Dave Augenstein or I have had. Sick for a while, then okay, and resolved to not repeat our mistakes.
That all assumes you believe the government statistics, which I don't. The estimate about illnesses is not just an estimate, but a wild estimate, done in 1999.
Whatever the real situation, to accomplish Vilsack's goal will require complete sanitation of the food supply, many more raids of the type we've seen on Rawesome Foods to make sure people are abiding by the sanitation edicts, the complete banning of much seafood and deli meats, more rules against people visiting farms, and on and on.
The upshot, of course, would likely be ever more elimination of bacteria that help support life, and build immunity, with resulting increases in asthma, allergies, and other immune-system problems.
Why can't we face up to the fact that the days of flagrant tainting of food described by Sinclair Lewis 100 years ago are long gone. People get sick, not only from food, but from any number of viruses and bacteria. Usually, they get better. When they get sick from food, they learn lessons about where to shop and eat out, and try to make better judgments in the future. If poor sanitation or other problems are suspected, we have thousands of public health people to become involved. And in the unusual cases of serious illness resulting from negligence, the lawyers get involved.
I regularly meet people who know nothing about the controversy over raw milk. When I explain the governmental aggressiveness, most are aghast. One man this past weekend told me it reminded him of playgrounds. He has grandchildren, and has noticed that today's playgrounds are missing the seesaws and merry-go-rounds that were common when we were all younger. Now, the seesaws I can possibly appreciate, since those were pretty terrifying. But the merry-go-rounds? It's all part of an obsessiveness to create an environment where kids don't ever skin their knees and adults don't ever get food poisoning. The price is too high.
Read the whole article here.
You Want to Believe, but Here's Why Cooperation with the Food Police Is So Dicey; Lessons from a Cheese Expert
The Complete Patient
By David Gumpert
July 31, 2010
Warren Burgess has a difficult decision to make.
Burgess is a partner in Traditional Foods Minnesota , which was raided by state agriculture authorities in mid-June, and has been shuttered since. Its crime, like that of Rawesome Foods in Venice, CA, and Manna Storehouse in 2008, seems to be that it makes nutrient-dense food available to a private membership.
Basically, Burgess' decision is this: Does he cool his heels indefinitely while local licensing officials jerk him around, or does he do what Aajonus Vonderplanitz, a founder of Rawesome, did in California, and defy the ordered shutdown by independently re-opening
Until now, Burgess has taken the approach of being super cooperative with the authorities. He says the half-dozen agents who appeared at the club's warehouse from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, accompanied by a local cop, didn't have a search warrant. Nearly all the food is locally produced by small producers, and not available via commercial outlets--things like home-made kombucha and pickled quail eggs.
"I didn't claim my rights," Burgess told me in explaining why he didn't insist on a search warrant. He's a software engineer, originally from Australia, having settled in the U.S. in 1993. He had just bought out one of the partners of Traditional Foods Minnesota, Alan Kantrud, six weeks earlier. The outlet was founded by Will Winter and a partner in 2008. (Winter subsequently sold his share to Alvin Schlangen.)
The one step he took to protect himself during the raid was to insist on split samples. The agriculture agents refused, only allowing him to keep items from the same shipment--for example, like bottles of pickled quail eggs.
The MDA put an embargo on the outlet, freezing sales. But in the spirit of cooperation, "Within a half hour of the raid, I gave them a complete list of everything that had been sold in the last thirty days." His reasoning: the agents said they were concerned with the safety of the products on sale, and Burgess wanted to provide full disclosure. "They said they were looking for putrid foods and unsanitary foods."
The result of Burgess' largesse? "They basically used the information I gave them to raid other people." A producer of raw milk who sublet part of the warehouse where Traditional Foods Minnesota is located to distribute his milk was one of those raided. (Traditional Foods Minnesota doesn't sell raw milk.)
He says he was told there were licensing issues, and that he's inquired about which licenses to obtain. But the guidance he's received has been contradictory. Initially he was told he needed a retailing license, "But we are zoned industrial-two, so we can't be a retail shop. Besides, we're not retailers. We were doing manufacturing, of kombucha and sauerkraut." The outlet also has an aquaculture operation, growing yellow perch, and vegetables in the mineral-rich water.
Of late, the officials have stopped responding altogether to Burgess' requests for guidance, according to emails Burgess shared with me.
He's not sure what to do. I have a suggestion, though I must acknowledge upfront it's not my skin or food club at risk. Assume the authorities are out to keep you and your members from obtaining nutrient-dense food, and take the Aajonus Vonderplanitz route. Screw 'em.
Bill Anderson with his sampling of Vermont cheeses. Much as I enjoy the array of raw milk cheeses increasingly available in Vermont, I didn't fully appreciate that it's become the center of artisanal cheese-making in the U.S. I received a fascinating introduction to the dynamics of cheesemaking when I caught up with cheesemaker Bill Anderson (aka WI Raw Milk Consumer on this blog) in the midst of a Vermont cheesemaker tour he was taking.
Anderson is in the midst of moving from Wisconsin to launch a cheesemaking operation in Ohio. We arranged to meet, and just as I had hoped, he showed up with samples of seven different Vermont cheeses. My favorite was a raw goats milk camembert with a distinct barnyard taste. Yum.
Read the whole article here.