Thursday October 22, 2015 10:30 am
York Region Public Health
Meeting with Vito Chiefari
Summary: The hour long meeting with Vito was informative and diplomatic but reached an expected impasse, quickly. Elisa and Farm Share owners requested the meeting to seek out the exact individuals who gave direct orders for inspectors and police to raid the regular raw milk drop on September 29, 2015. Glencolton Farms had been operating peacefully since the last raid on November 21, 2006.
There were no clear messages from this meeting other than Farm Share owners face potential threats every day.
Read Vito’s answers to Glencolton’s supporter’s probing questions and the remarkable insights on the gap between what the courts have ruled to be one’s right and what regulators actions are. Existing legislation is clear but interpretation by those enforcing it, is not.
The following (revealing, maddening and offending) excerpts were taken by a Farm Share owner present at the meeting and explain why Elisa needs to begin an Access To Information to find out why regulators continue to disregard a legal private arrangement that falls within the rights of its partnership and outside the jurisdiction of the public realm.
Elisa asked to have a personal meeting with Vito Chiefari’s Director, Joe La Marca, to understand where orders for inspections and raids continue to come from, and why.
The ultimate goal is to have dialogue with all of the individuals, at every relevant level of authority, to seek a permanent resolution—make amendments or interpret the existing regulations to end harassment of standardized and safe arrangements between farmers and their informed consumers.
Elisa began by letting Vito know that this particular farm has been producing milk for raw consumption for 21 years. That York Region Public Health Unit and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) were involved in raids to get whatever evidence they needed to build their case. It started in 1993. Vito admitted that he was not aware of this.
Elisa went on to say:
1993, Michael Schmidt and his family owned that farm [Glencolton] and produced raw milk for those who were asking him for it. I read recently in a book called, “Weird Ontario Laws” written by A.H Jackson, that when the documentary made on Michael was aired on CBC, within a week the Health Unit was at the farm along with the Ontario Minister of Finance (OMAF) and the MNRF. Michael and the families that he was providing raw milk to were like, “Whoa, hold on a second, you can’t be doing this. That went through the courts and Michael lost hands down. He was fined $3500. He paid the $3500 and reorganized the structure of the farm as a Cow Share operation. All of the people purchasing milk and milk products at the time then bought into the cow herd. Everyone who wanted the milk had to buy a cow and that’s what they did. Then in 2006, York Region Public Health and the MNRF came to the farm. That was 13 years later… nothing for years.
To the best of our note taking ability, and shared recall, this is the dialogue that day.
Vito (V), Elisa (E). The other three letters you’ll see (M, N and S) represent names of Glencolton supporters at the meeting.
V: Where is the farm located?
E: In Durham
V: That is not York Region.
E: No, but York Region came to the location at the school here in Richmond Hill. So there was all this coming together here. York Region would come to the location at the school and the MNRF would come to the location at the farm. The local health unit came to the location at the farm, did their investigations and laid charges. The same charges they laid on Michael 13 years earlier. Michael argued in court and won. Then the government appealed. Mr. Joe La Marca was subpoenaed for court. There were several courts there. York Region dealing with the contempt of court specifically. I wasn’t involved in any of that at that time. I was more of a witness to what was happening. It became really clear that we, the group of people who owned the cows, felt like this was our herd so, “why can’t we drink the milk?” The court system had its own take on that, which was a variation of the same thing in a way so we have a long history of this. It has continued now for 21 years. People are consuming this milk from these cows the same people, pretty near, and their families. It’s a very private situation where people have come to Michael 21 years ago and said please start this. We need access to this milk because we need it for our health.
In that 21 years we have never seen anyone get ill from it. So, that is sort of the history of how long this has been going on for. I think that the people have for a long time now, felt that this is a form of harassment that is not fair and not necessary for a public institution to come into a privately owned structure. It is not open to the public.
People cannot come in and say “Oh, I would like to get a membership” like they can with the YMCA. They can go in the YMCA and buy a membership and it’s open to the public, and in our case it is not, it’s not open to the public. We invite people we know, they are our friends and our family and we work together as a community.
V: How big is the Cow Share, as you call it?
M: It’s as Farm Share now.
V: How big is the membership?
E: There are about 100 people. 100 families on a regular basis.
N: Would it make sense for me to go through the legal framework? I am not directly associated with the farm but I’m an academic and a researcher. This is one of my areas. Just as a review for everyone the laws in Ontario, there is a stipulation under the Health Protection and Promotions Act (HPPA) that raw milk may not be produced for sale or distribution in the province. Having said that there was a regulatory review in 1994 by the health protection appeal board that confirmed that there is a kind of exemption for farm families that owned their own cows. They could consume their own milk on the farm or wherever they want to as long as it’s from their own dairy animals. That’s written up in quite some detail in this 1994 review. Then as you heard from Elisa there were a number of court cases. The Crown appeal is where Michael was found guilty on all the charges… was it all the charges, Elisa?
E: 13 of the 19. He was acquitted on all 19 charges in the original court case in 2009. Then, when the Crown appealed that ruling, Judge Tetley, who was the presiding judge on the appeal hearing, said, “Oh, well actually he’s guilty on 13 of the 19 charges” but there was a provision that he put in there.
N: Ya, so it is quite interesting that the way the ruling was written up. I looked at it in quite a lot of detail. The reasons the judge gave had a lot to do with the way that the Cow Share was structured at the time. I’m going to read to you briefly what the judge says “that a valid transfer of ownership or the conferring of an equity interest in the cows or in the herd the milk that they produce it is conceded by the crown as potentially negating the alleged violation of section 18(1) of the HPPA and it is the provision against the sale of unpasteurized milk. It basically goes on to explain the way in which the ownership structure was written up that it couldn’t stand up in court but theoretically that this could be done in such a way that the ownership could be put upon those who were seeking access to the milk so that they too could enjoy the farm family exemption. So this is my understanding.
E: That’s the Cow Share that Michael was operating between 2006-2011. Actually it changed pretty soon thereafter. Even before the ruling came out there was a conceptual idea that the people wanted to be a part of securing the land base that produces the food that they want to consume. That’s when they really became owners in the whole thing.
V: The cows and the farm.
E: Yup, the whole thing. So, that’s why when you came [referring to Vito’s inspection of the milk drop truck on September 29, 2015] and I said this is not a food premise. This is a private truck. This is a private thing. We don’t offer anything for sale. If people come, if they come into the church parking lot wanting to buy milk we say, “We don’t know you”, we don’t allow them. They have to be a part of our community. We have to know them. There is a certain process they have to follow in order to become part of the farm. They buy in. It’s theirs. We don’t offer that publicly. We don’t offer, “Come buy a share in the farm and you can have raw milk!” The people who are part of it have known Michael or myself for years and have been a part of this community around the church. So, it is not open to the public at all. This leads me to a question, so how is it that your guys came to us on September the 29th?
Vito told Elisa that he had observed a white truck with coolers on the ground around it on his way home from work. We are going to presume on several occasions and not just once. He said that there was no complaint made but that because of his job he considered that what he saw was a potential for the distribution of raw milk. He went on saying that it was no different than any other food premise whether it’s a food catering truck, meat truck or anything else. Even in the case of a home based business, that was private, an inspection could be initiated based on what he called “community concern”.
Elisa was not satisfied with the answer and asked again, “Who gave you the direction to come to the milk drop location on the 29th of September?”
Vito only responded that he reports to Joe La Marca [Director of Health Protection Regional Municipality of York], and that he works for Dr. Kurji [Medical Officer of Health Regional Municipality of York].
E: So, did Joe La Marca send you then? Did he say, “Hey, get your team together.” You got 5 guys. You need a lot of people now because normally you don’t go with 5 people to do a health “inspection”.
Vito told Elisa that Joe was informed about the inspection. This sounded contrary to how he answered the question the first time. He continued to say that the level of information Elisa was looking for was not necessary for this conversation. Elisa drew attention to the point that Vito’s “driving by” was very different than an inspection being instigated by Joe La Marca.
Elisa informed Vito that she was aware that the MNRF started an investigation in March 2015 and shared that her take was that Joe La Marca filed a complaint to Roger Dunlop [Manager of the Regulatory Compliance Unit] at OMAF, which that got sent to the MNRF. If that was true it appears that York Region was not following protocol.
Elisa then asked Vito to request a meeting with Joe La Marca so as to ask him directly the questions about the origins of the September 29th inspection.
She again pressed for details about who exactly gave Vito direction for the inspection to which he answered only that “he reports to Joe La Marca.”
E: But does that mean that Joe La Marca gave you the directive to go and do this inspection on the 29th of September? That he said he had a job for you down at 901 Rutherford to get a sample of raw milk?
Vito responded by saying that it was an assumption that we were going to have to make because he is Vito’s director. Vito agreed to go back and make that request.
Before letting the point go Elisa asserted again that the September 29th inspection at the regular milk drop did not feel like it was unplanned or based on casual drives home. What was being sought during the inspection was very specific. It did not appear like a regular food premise inspection where everything would be suspect. It was targeted at the milk. They inspectors wanted to see the milk. It was very narrow focussed. Vito confirmed that the concern was the potential distribution of raw milk—but there was no community concern or official complaint. He could not say anymore about the file’s details and suggested that Elisa, should she want to know the details of the inspection, that she begin a process through the Freedom of Information Act.
S: Mr. Jarvie [an investigator from the MNRF Agricultural Investigation Unit] told us that the investigation had been going on for several months under surveillance. That they had been surveilling Elisa’s house for a period of time.
Vito said he could not speak to what others are doing.
S: In my previous life, I was in the food processing and manufacturing business for 16 years. I had a lot of encounters with the CFIA and the Health Unit. It was always positive. I had no issues, ever, but they always explained to us that the reason we didn’t see them very often was because of budget constraints and that they only came based on complaints by the public that they viewed as an urgent nature. So, I guess the concern we have is that we want make sure that there isn’t someone in the government system who’s got a bone to pick or one last file on their desk before retirement. We are just trying to get to the root as to where this public concern come from. Who placed the concern?
Vito answered saying that York Region had an obligation to do proactive inspections.
S: In the public realm, though, not private homes.
V: In York Region many places that are a combination, whether they are home daycares or food operators, we do inspect.
S: They are dealing in the public realm and not private. That’s our concern.
V: We do conduct inspections of places and determine what they are and what they’re not? Yes. Do we routinely get obstructed? No. We don’t routinely get a search warrant. We get it as required.
E: When you came to the truck on that Tuesday, you came said, “I’m here to do an inspection.” Vito agreed that he wanted to do an inspection. Elisa reminded him that she said, “No, this is a private truck” and then you asked me “Are you obstructing me?” I said,” Yes”. Then you said, “That’s fine, I’ll go get a search warrant.”
Where was the question, can we have a conversation about what is going on here so I can know whether it is even in my jurisdiction as an inspector?” It felt like it was very well planned. You had a lot of people with you. You brought the police everything. Where was the conversation, do you have raw milk here? What is the structure? How do you figure what we were doing was not allowed under the section 18(1) of the HPPA? Where was that step of the conversation? It is kind of upsetting for us. We really feel like you came, you trespassed, you violated our rights, as individuals and as human beings. We’re not hurting anybody. No one is getting hurt here.
Whether or not you want to drink raw milk, we don’t care. You don’t even have to agree its good for you. You don’t have to agree that it’s safe. We’re just saying we’ve chosen to drink raw milk. We’ve created a situation for ourselves which is co-operative so that we can operate together as a community. That’s private. We are saying it’s really not in your jurisdiction to come and do whatever you want with the full force of the police. I can understand you being curious about what was happening. I said to you before you went on the truck, why didn’t you just come and ask me because I would have never said it’s not raw milk? You know it’s not a secret. No one says we are not doing it. You can Google Michael Schmidt.
S: I think that is the frustration of people, even outside of the community. People are frustrated that millions of dollars are spent here on the government’s side, battling with Mr. Schmidt and the raw milk movement. The amount of money that has been tied up in tax payer money for what hasn’t created an issue for anyone in 21 years. It just seems appalling that our tax dollars are being squandered like this. Without any harm having come to anybody. We can see many other things that this money could be used for yet the organization is trying to work in the private realm and no harm has come to anyone. It hasn’t cost tax payers any money. It’s actually the opposite. It actually generates income tax money and revenues that get paid back into the public coffers and yet it’s being attacked and we just don’t understand where this is all coming from. If there was an issue, if you came to us and said that 10 people are sick here and this is a serious thing and we’ve got to deal with this then there is some cannon fodder here. But there is nothing here like that. I don’t know if you can understand the frustration where people are at on this after 21 years of saying somebody’s going to get sick and die it still doesn’t continue to happen and people continue to consume the product.
The Amish and Mennonite population consume raw dairy products on a regular basis. The argument is that these people have some kind of immunity. Fact is, noone has immunity to salmonella, E. coli or campylobacter. If it’s there it’s going to make you sick. Mr. Schmidt has done everything over the years to test the quality of his product. There are all these things that people have been trying to do, to do it right. We would love to have public health on our side with best procedures, protocols, management practices to make this happen in a safe way because it’s going to happen anyway. You know the government regulates tobacco, alcohol and things that really create a lot of harm. We are saying here is a thing that really brings people together in a community and it’s being attacked. How can we work within a framework to make this happen in a safer way rather than force it underground. Mr. Schmidt is just one of dozen’s of people in Ontario who are doing this.
E: Michael is the only one who has been targeted because he is open about it and we don’t believe it should be underground. We think it’s a huge health risk to have random people getting random milk from random farms where there is no relationship between the people who get the product to the person who is producing it. And I have a serious issue with that personally. I do not think that that is OK. I think that public health should definitely be involved when people are getting raw milk from a middle guy.
Vito expressed that what he was hearing was all very good information but that HPPA clearly states that we can’t sell, offer for sale, distribute, transport raw milk. He could not speak to the structure of the Farm Share but he stated that, “the distribution of milk is the distribution of milk.”
Elisa asked, “If I am farmer and in partnership with my brother’s dairy farm, and I live around the corner, and I go into the barn every day, and I milk the cows with my brother, and then I get some milk, and take it home to my family around the corner, am I now distributing raw milk?”
This was met with silence for some time while Vito processed it.
S: “You see, this is the question we’ve had asked a lot of dairy farmers who say it’s OK for them to do it. I had this conversation with the Chairman of the Dairy Farmers of Ontario who lives across the road from his dairy barn. He says he takes his milk home. It’s ridiculous. Why could you not be allowed to take it home? Why is it any more ridiculous for the owner of a cow at Mr. Schmidt’s farm to take their milk a mile up the road or 5 miles up the road or 50 miles up the road. What makes you any more special than that person?” That’s the stone wall we get all the time when we ask to have a conversation about how do we move this forward? As soon as you call somebody out on it, the conversation’s over.
E: Or, “I can’t speak to that.”
N: This has been structured as an organization so that it falls within the farm family exemption. Maybe that awareness hasn’t translated to where it needs to go when this type of enforcement repeatedly comes in which is a concern.
S: I have one other example with eggs on a farm. You can produce eggs on your farm and you can sell them from the farm, ungraded. People can drive in the laneway and buy your eggs no problem. I can not take those eggs out to the farmers’ market and sell them ungraded. But I can sell them from the farm gate ungraded. Wouldn’t it be the understanding then that if people are coming to the farm gate [for milk] that the farm community would be left alone if that was the case?
E: If people living in York Region drove out to the farm picked up their milk and drove back to York Region would they now be distributing raw milk?
Vito referred to a section of the HPPA, “No person shall sell, offer for sale, deliver or distribute milk.” Elisa mentioned that this was for a food premise and did not include a private residence. Vito said that a private residence is typically somebody’s home. Elisa supported her argument by saying, “Yes, typically. But is a private vehicle? Where does it end? Where is the line between private and public drawn?”
N: I think we need to interpret the HPPA in light of the court ruling. That is how we usually interpret legislation, if I’m not mistaken. This court ruling has interpreted the farm family exemption as allowing for private arrangements where people are able to own farms or cows together. This is not to be considered with in the jurisdiction of the public health because it’s a private matter. Consumption of raw milk is not in any way outlawed anywhere in the country.
S: The Milk Act also says that a dairy producer must offer to sell their milk to the milk marketing board. This milk is not being sold to people. Only to those who are taking an ownership of the farm. I think that removes us from that because we are not partaking, we are not commercializing the product we are not offering it for sale.
Each person who is co-owner of the Farm Share pay so much to maintain the animals, the farm, the feed, the bedding, the labour and so you’re not going to go down the road and find this farm’s milk in a store somewhere. That’s just never going to happen. That’s not what’s being asked for. What we’re trying to get to here is that within the framework of the system, from your perspective, how are we able to take into consideration the court ruling. What framework works for you guys to stop harassing the people. That’s how they feel whether that’s how you see it or not but that’s how they feel.
Vito said that he would never be a person who advocates for any kind of harassment. That he has never done that his whole career. That he tries to do the job he needs to do. That his work is never about any one individual and that he apologizes that the public’s perception is that we are harassing them. In terms of the position of the Public Health in York Region is that the distribution of milk is the distribution of milk. The Act the Act. This is the policy I’m bound by.
N: How do we come to an understanding together about how to interpret this in light of the court ruling where a private operation should be exempt from enforcement?
Vito answered that people who have a different skill set than him, meaning a legal interpretation, need to speak to that question. That is legal direction.
N: It really is important because if you’re need to enforce the HPPA, which clearly is your job, then it needs to be appropriately interpreted. Maybe by someone else on the team. How can we get to that discussion because we are at a standstill. It’s obviously quite upsetting and you don’t mean any harm its clear.
Vito reiterated again that the he implements and enforces policy. That he does not write the policy. He was clear to say that there is an obvious difference of opinion and that any interpretation would be a Level 4 discussion.
E: Do you think that you’re going to come back and visit us again on Tuesday in the near future?
V: We continue to review the file, Elisa. What that means, time will tell. The distribution of milk is non-compliance, just so we are clear. On that we don’t have to agree, so you know where York Region stands. Section 18 is what I am bound to. We have a duty and responsibility to enforce the Act.
N: Anyone enforcing the Act needs to interpret it as the courts do and that the current interpretations are incomplete.
Elisa closed by saying letting Vito know that if there were plans to come to 901 Rutherford on a Tuesday, that he should make sure he brings a lot of police officers. That there may be a lot of people to arrest and that it won’t be nice for the public to see that happen. Elisa closed with a reasonable request that while clarity on policy and interpretations are reviewed that further enforcement is suspended.
Vito could only say that be would “bring that request forward.”