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David E. Gumpert

David E. Gumpert

Posted: May 3, 2010 10:49 AM

Fight Over Raw Milk Moves East, Amid Charges of Collusion with Big Dairy

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Read More: Milk , Raw Milk , Food News

The movement to fight off the federal and state campaigns against raw milk over the past three years has been viewed by the mainstream media as pretty much a fringe thing. A bunch of crazy farmers who refuse to send their milk for pasteurization, and even crazier consumers, who insist on supposedly endangering their health with the unprocessed milk.

The battle has raged mostly in the West and Midwest. In California, movie stars like Martin Sheen joined demonstrations with bad-boy raw dairy farmer Mark McAfee, who runs the largest raw dairy in the country, during 2008 in a vain effort to pass legislation that would have loosened regulatory restrictions on raw milk. Over the last six months, in Wisconsin, a growing citizen movement on behalf of raw milk has led to passage of legislation that would reverse the state's long-standing prohibition on raw milk sales, and allow consumers to buy it from the farm. The governor has indicated publicly that he'll sign it, but in the charged atmosphere over this issue, anything is possible.

But now that regulators are moving to stem the flow of raw milk in the East, affecting the supplies of Boston lawyers, business owners, and health professionals, as well as even Washington bureaucrats, the situation is moving from fringe to mainstream.

The trigger has been a seemingly small but arbitrary decision by a Massachusetts regulator to restrict consumer access to milk. Unlike Wisconsin, which never officially sanctioned raw milk sales, Massachusetts has long allowed sales from dairy farms, and delivery to consumers by any of a half dozen or more buying clubs.

Everything was working fine in Massachusetts -- more dairy farmers producing ever more raw milk and in the process creating a revival for the state's moribund dairy industry. No illnesses in over a decade.

The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources seemed to be doing its job of supporting state agriculture by encouraging raw-milk-producing dairy farmers rather than harassing them, like the regulators do in New York state. Late last year, MDAR publicly supported a suburban Boston dairy farmer in his fight with state and local public health authorities and helped him gain approval to sell raw milk from his dairy.

But then something happened early this year to change MDAR's approach. The agency sent cease-and-desist letters to four buying clubs that had been quietly and efficiently delivering raw milk to consumers who didn't want to burn the gasoline or were unable because they don't have cars or even are disabled, to travel the hour or two hours to a dairy farm in central Massachusetts and pick up their milk. (Buying clubs are private businesses that deliver milk from raw dairies on a contractual basis for consumers.) The letters weren't well received by the owners of the buying clubs, and they began mobilizing support from their customers and legislators to challenge MDAR. They argued that Massachusetts laws and regulations don't specifically prohibit the buying clubs, making the cease-and-desist letters so much paper.

MDAR seems to have agreed, because two weeks ago, it proposed a new regulation to explicitly prohibit the buying clubs. The regulation would make Massachusetts the first state in the country to explicitly ban raw milk buying clubs.

In advance of a hearing May 10 on the proposed regulation, a Massachusetts legislator friendly with Soares set up a meeting on Monday for the regulator to discuss with a few consumers his reasons for going after the buying clubs.

Surprise -- 15 consumers and farmers showed up for the meeting, and started peppering the startled Soares with questions about why he was taking an action that will inevitably reduce consumers' access to raw milk, and quite possibly put at least a few of the more than twenty dairy farms selling raw milk out of business.

These 15 consumers weren't just a few people off the street. They included some prominent local citizens who know how the system works -- Boston employment lawyer Harvey Schwartz, Cambridge business owner Abby Rockefeller, and EPA whistleblower Hugh Kaufman. The latter has served as Chief Investigator with the Environmental Protection Agency's Ombudsman Office, among other high-level positions over a forty-year period.

Kaufman put Soares on the spot during the Monday meeting when Soares said at one point that there was as much passion from anti-raw-milk people as from pro-raw-milk people. Who were these anti-raw-milk people, Kaufman inquired.

"He said that large dairy producers had communicated to him," recalls Kaufman. "I asked him who they were. He said he couldn't tell me."

But Kaufman says Soares talked about concerns the dairy representatives have "that if something goes wrong with raw milk, it will hurt all the dairies." (This is a familiar refrain by the conventional dairy industry that has no basis, since public health and health regulators are quick in any suspected illness from raw milk to alert consumers, in shrill terms, to the distinction between raw and pasteurized milk.)

That led Kaufman to inquire whether Soares had written any of this down. Soares said he hadn't.

Kaufman maintains that when government officials have conversations with industry representatives while new regulations are being considered, the officials are supposed to open a docket -- make a written record of what happened and when.

I should say at this point that four other people who were at the meeting with Soares have confirmed Kaufman's account of what occurred. Moreover, I tried via phone and email to obtain comment from Soares. His publicity official emailed me Thursday asking what I wanted to inquire about. I wrote her back that I wanted his version about what was said at the Monday meeting about his contacts with dairy officials. I didn't receive a response.

Kaufman thinks he understands the problem: "Soares couldn't handle 15 knowledgeable people. In the process, he opened up a pandora's box. Now his legal problem is that he is hiding from the public the names of the large business entities, that he is meeting with, who are pushing him to restrain trade. As well as hiding from the general public, the fact that he's being pushed by these business entities in the first place. Not making a public record of these ex-parte discussions with the big dairies lobbying him to harm their competitors, during an Official Government Rulemaking, is NOT legit."

I'll add to Kaufman's impressions. We know that the FDA and Midwest agriculture officials have targeted raw milk buying clubs -- the case of Wisconsin buying club owner Max Kane and the pressure to force him to testify about where he obtains his milk and who his customers are is a direct result of the official crackdown.

What MDAR's Soares seems to be saying is that the dairy industry is part and parcel of the campaign to hamper raw milk distribution by cracking down on buying clubs.

At least it's all out in the open. Now it's up to consumers to let the regulators and politicians know how they feel about this joint government-industry enforcement campaign to deprive citizens of health-giving foods of their choice. The next big opportunity comes May 10, at 10 am at 100 Cambridge St, Conference Room A, 2nd Floor in Boston, Mass. Come one, come all. It's all within shouting distance of where the real Boston Tea Party took place.