In 2012 Food Rights Became Legal Issue — Can a Movement Emerge in 2013?

January 2nd, 2013

The Complete Patient
By David Gumpert

A year ago I summarized the key themes for 2011 as “rising shock events” and “rising stress levels,” thanks to highly public raids on food clubs and farms.

I’d say 2012 was the year these shock events played out in a number of ways, primarily legal. The hero in this rough-and-tumble legal environment was the farmer. Food rights activist Liz Reitzig summed up their contribution well in a guest post. As she suggested, there are lots of them we don’t hear much about, but three of them stood especially tall in challenging the great American (and Canadian) legal prosecution machines: Alvin Schlangen, Vernon Hershberger, and Michael Schmidt.

These farmers are likely just the lead phalanx, since all signs point to the struggle over food rights getting nastier before there’s any kind of compromise or reconciliation. The reason is that this really isn’t about public health or other truly human issues–rather, it’s about economics and politics. As the dairy industry watches pasteurized milk sales slide, the industry will become ever more desperate, put ever more pressure on politicians and regulators to get rid of these farmers setting the “wrong” example by distributing food privately; Big Ag in other food areas will react similarly.

More on possible future directions later in this post. Right now, here are one observer’s Top 10 stories and cases about food rights and raw milk from the last year.

1.The acquittal of Minnesota farmer Alvin Schlangen. As the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) pursued Schlangen for more than two years, he remained in the background, overshadowed by other cases, like those involving Rawesome Food Club, and fellow Minnesota farmer Michael Hartmann. But last September, when he finally came to trial on three misdemeanors, he turned down a plea deal and went hear to hear with the local prosecutor…and became the first significant food rights “win” since the struggle heated up n the last four years.

2. Wisconsin farmer Vernon Hershberger’s refusal to be intimidated. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) has brought out the big artillery against Hershberger over the nearly three years it has pursued him. Even when he flinched slightly in agreeing to debilitating bail conditions, he quickly reversed himself, and hasn’t looked back, even while DATCP has brought increasingly heavy legal pressure to bear in a desperate effort to avoid a repeat of the Alvin Schlangen outcome.  We won’t know the outcome of his case until at least the spring, as his scheduled trial for this month has been put off.

3. Michael Schmidt stands up for principle…yet again. In keeping with the movement around him, Schmidt “graduated” in a sense, moving beyond raw milk, and challenging arbitrary agricultural practices in the area of forced genetic purification of farm animal breeds. He challenged the confiscation of a herd of rare sheep suspected of harboring scrapie. His farm was raided…once more…and he was charged with conspiracy and could face 14 years in jail.

4. Fessing up around raw milk. An outbreak of illness from E.coli O157:H7 in raw milk at Foundation Farm in Oregon sent four young children to the hospital in serious condition. But it also was a wake-up call to many raw-milk advocates. One encouraging sign was the apparent rejuvenation of the Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI), which had been a subject of bitter debate for months beforehand. Before long, RAWMI was inspecting dairies, conducting presentations for farmers, signing up members, and even arranging to offer insurance to dairies.

5. Rawesome case legal piling on. For the Rawesome Three–James Stewart, Sharon Palmer, and Victoria Bloch–it was a tough year. The legal pressures in Los Angeles County mounted, as a second legal front opened for Stewart and Palmer in neighboring Ventura County. They decided they nearly had no choice but to work out plea bargains, so complex and numerous were the legal charges against them.

6. The Raw Politics of Raw Milk. From Maine, we got a bird’s eye view of how one group of regulators worked to discredit raw milk. It was all in the interests of trying to de-rail the Food Sovereignty movement there, which has convinced seven towns to adopt ordinances declaring private food transactions outside regulatory oversight.

7. Targeting consumers in Minnesota. Most regulators have limited their enforcement campaigns to farmers and food clubs, because they’re afraid of taking on consumers…except for the MDA. It seems unable to pass up the opportunity for a good fight with anyone advocating for food rights, be it farmer or foodie.  Last year, it decided to come down on consumers who host drop points for raw dairy farmers. In May, the MDA sent what I referred to as “love letters” to nine or ten consumers, thanking them, in its own special way, for supporting local farmers…by threatening them with criminal charges if they continued to allow their garages or decks to serve as drop points for raw milk farmers. A number refused publicly to abide by the warnings, and so far as I know, the MDA hasn’t followed through on its threats. But these regulators have infinite patience, helped by the fact that they draw infinite paychecks, and the longer they draw paychecks, the bigger their eventual pension checks, so don’t count on anything being forgotten.

8. First “official” acknowledgment that raw milk may have unique health benefits. From Anna Petherick, a Nature writer, came a ground-breaking article for the University of California’s and milk processor’s Milk Genome Project, arguing that European research made a strong case for special health benefits from raw milk.

9. The humility of Pennsylvania raw milk farmer Edwin Shank. An outbreak of illnesses from campylobacter hit the East Coast’s largest raw milk producer, Edwin Shank. As the numbers grew, eventually to 60 cases, Shank tried desperately to figure out if he was at fault, and what might have been the cause. Eventually, public health officials in Maryland made a lab connection to his dairy, and he took full responsibility and apologized. Even though the illnesses were mild, there was no hiding, no excuses–only a commitment to do better, which he seems to be fulfilling.

10. The expanding raw milk debate. For the first time in a long time, there was something approximating a public airing of the raw milk issue between proponents and opponents, at the Harvard Law School last February. I was pleased to be part of the proponent team, together with Sally Fallon of the Weston A. Price Foundation. The debate attracted lots of attention, but my guess is you won’t see anyone in a position of authority who opposes raw milk participating in any such public dialog again soon–there was just too much interest, and the opponents had difficulty making a cogent argument for their side. As evidence of the interest, the video of the debate had nearly 28,000 views in ten months.


One of the big questions as we move into 2013 is whether the flurry of debate and legalities around food rights will be transformed into an activist movement to keep the issues front and center. I like to think we will see an important movement emerge.

One of the reasons that will happen, in my judgment, is that there’s much more to come in the way of important information disclosures, in this area and in related areas where corporations and government have conspired to go after so-called troublemakers. One reason I’m optimistic is that there are signs of media upset with the government-inspired campaign to undermine Wikileaks–enough so that a new organization of British and American journalists is taking shape, known as the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Its founding was announced by a British columnist last week.

Much of the American media has been docile as the American government has gone after farmers and food clubs over the last few years, blindly accepting the explanations that they were about “food safety.” Hopefully, we’ll begin to see some self examination by the media, and a desire to go beyond the propaganda the government hands out.


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