The controversial attempt to shut down raw milk buying clubs in Massachusetts is making news, as in this story by Dan Ring, from The Republican. Here’s an excerpt:
BOSTON – When Blanche Lennington last year started a small club to purchase raw milk directly from farmers, she figured it would be a good way to share her passion for the product and support local dairy farmers.
The club thrived – until it was suddenly shut down this year by the state.
The state Department of Agricultural Resources is banning Lennington, a Becket grandmother, and other consumers from purchasing nonpasteurized milk from a farm and then distributing the milk to fellow club members.
Under a proposed state regulation that will be aired in Boston on Monday, people can continue to purchase raw milk from farms, but they will need to drive to the farm themselves. Under the regulation, people will no longer be allowed to join groups that allow them to pay another member a small fee to purchase the raw milk for them and drop it off at a convenient location for pickup, such as a rural retail store or private home.
“It’s a death knell for small farms,” said Lennington, 50, who started the club mostly to save others the time and expense of driving to a rural farm that sells raw milk.
Advocates for the clubs say the ban will hurt dairy farms and damage the economy by ending a local type of commerce based on a common love for “real milk.”
In the past several years, sales of raw milk have boomed. Consumers cite the health benefits and the need for supporting farmers.
“Raw milk improves the quality of my life greatly and it tastes fabulous,” said Pj Schott, 59, of Boston, who belonged to a club closed by the state.
Of the state’s 160 dairy farms, 27 sell raw milk directly to consumers, including Misty Brook Farm in Hardwick, Sidehill Farm in Ashfield, the Hager Brothers Farm in Colrain and the Cook Farm in Hadley. There were only 10 farms in the state that sold raw milk in 2006.
The state Department of Agricultural Resources this year sent “cease and desist” letters to Lennington and the operators of three other clubs.
Agriculture commissioner Scott J. Soares says it’s always been illegal for individuals to distribute raw milk and the proposed regulation would clarify that.
“The clubs have essentially been operating as illegal milk dealers and milk distributors,” Soares said….”
“At the end of the now-infamous meeting he had a week ago Monday with raw milk proponents, Scott Soares, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, suggested that proponents come up with specific ideas for making adjustments to the proposed ban on buying clubs in the state.
I’ve communicated via phone and email with a few dozen different Massachusetts food organizations–those involved in organic food issues and so-called slow food–and everyone seems able to come up with only one suggestion for Soares and his minions at the MDAR: Leave things the way they were, and by the way, go back to your pencil pushing and stop wasting everyone’s time and energy trying to deprive us of our food.
It’s encouraging to see many food groups coming together on this–organic and so-called slow food organizations–because for a good while a number of these didn’t take seriously raw milk and its symbolic importance in the emerging food rights movement. Now, thanks to the sensitive folks at the MDAR, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, among others, they do.
The argument for trying to negotiate with MDAR about this issue seems at first glance sensible, as it’s articulated by Neewa Andrapal in comments following my previous post. “For all other bulk transport of milk, there are protocols and inspections (and checking temperature is standard) for milk transport…One does not need evidence of mistransport to suggest a need that there needs to be some guidance or ovesite of an activity…I would suggest replacing the hyperbole and conspiracy theories with some suggestions on how to feasibly ensure that buying clubs are transporting appropriately.”
There’s just one major flaw in Andrapal’s argument (and no conspiracy theories): Raw milk in Massachusetts, and many other states, isn’t treated the same as pasteurized milk in the regulatory scheme of things. Raw milk can’t be lawfully distributed the way pasteurized milk and most other foods are because it is limited to sales from the farm. So there is no formal distribution process to regulate. The buying clubs aren’t distributors, but rather private organizations that contract with individual buyers to pick up their milk at the farm. Individual consumers already own the milk being transported. No one needs to regulate the person or organization I designate to pick up my milk for me. It’s a private arrangement between the club and me….”
It’s taken a while, but his Big Dairy handlers seem finally to have gotten Scott Soares, the Massachusetts commissioner of the Department of Agricultural Resources, on message.
In an interview broadcast today on the Cape Cod National Public Radio station, concerning his effort to make raw milk buying clubs illegal, he clearly articulated the argument the dairy industry most frequently makes to oppose raw milk.
When the NPR reporter noted that there hasn’t been an illness from raw milk in Massachusetts for well over a decade, here’s what Soares said: “Our primary concern with this is to protect the milk market itself. There have also been some claims relative to our taking an action relative to public health issues, and although we are certainly concerned, as anyone would be about people becoming ill, our primary charge is protection of the milk market here in Massachusetts and with the status of the dairy industry here in Massachusetts. We cannot afford to have people stop drinking milk for fear of the perception of it being an unhealthy or unsafe product.”
What he’s saying, in dairy industry business-speak, is “My job is to protect the dairy industry brand.” Soares’ problem is that there is no threat to the conventional dairy industry brand. There isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest anyone has ever discontinued pasteurized milk consumption because of worry about illnesses from raw milk. The threat is to the survival of the state’s raw milk farmers and buying clubs, and the jobs and food production they represent.
You can kind of appreciate it when dairy industry pitchmen make the “brand” argument, but not when a public official makes it. Soares’ job isn’t to protect the dairy processors and distributors (even aside from the fact they don’t need protecting). According to the MDAR’s own mission statement, “The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources’ (MDAR) mission is to ensure the long-term viability of local agriculture in Massachusetts.”
Two years ago, Soares told me for a Boston Globe Magazine article that he saw raw milk as “an important opportunity” for raw dairies to increase revenues and profits, and he thought the number of raw dairies could increase to 35 from 24.
Then, in late January, after issuing the first three cease-and-desist orders to Massachusetts buying clubs, he was talking about safety worries, about “a loss of control when (raw milk) leaves the farm. There is no guarantee the milk will be held at the proper temperature.”
And now, finally, he’s got his lines straight–he wants to protect the dairy industry. I don’t know if he’s looking ahead to a plumb job in the dairy industry, or if he’s angling for a U.S. Food and Drug Administration research grant for a Massachusetts university, or what.
What makes all this disturbing is that Soares is “the decider” about the proposed regulation to ban the buying clubs. After the hearing is completed Monday, he decides whether to implement the new reg. Think he’s tipped his hand? The good news is that his decision can be challenged in state or federal court if it appears to be arbitrary….”