By August 12, 2013 8 Comments Read More →

Should You Be Able to Buy Food Directly From Farmers? The Government Doesn’t Think So

Flickr - raw food - NatalieMaynorDavid E. Gumpert, Guest
Waking Times

This would seem to embody the USDA’s advisory, “Know your farmer, know your food,” right? Not exactly.

For the USDA and its sister food regulator, the FDA, there’s a problem: many of the farmers are distributing the food via private contracts like herd shares and leasing arrangements, which fall outside the regulatory system of state and local retail licenses and inspections that govern public food sales.

In response, federal and state regulators are seeking legal sanctions against farmers in Maine, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California, among others. These sanctions include injunctions, fines, and even prison sentences. Food sold by unlicensed and uninspected farmers is potentially dangerous say the regulators, since it can carry pathogens like salmonella, campylobacter, and E.coli O157:H7, leading to mild or even serious illness.

Most recently, Wisconsin’s attorney general appointed a special prosecutor to file criminal misdemeanor charges against an Amish farmer for alleged failure to have retail and dairy licenses, and the proceedings turned into a high-profile jury trial in late May that highlighted the depth of conflict: following five days of intense proceedings, the 12-person jury acquitted the farmer, Vernon Hershberger, on all the licensing charges, while convicting him of violating a 2010 holding order on his food, which he had publicly admitted.

Why are hard-working normally law-abiding farmers aligning with urban and suburban consumers to flaunt well-established food safety regulations and statutes? Why are parents, who want only the best for their children, seeking out food that regulators say could be dangerous? And, why are regulators and prosecutors feeling so threatened by this trend?

Members of these private food groups often buy from local farmers because they want food from animals that are treated humanely, allowed to roam on pasture, and not treated with antibiotics. “I really want food that is full of nutrients and the animals to be happy and content,” says Jenny DeLoney, a Madison, WI, mother of three young children who buys from Hershberger.

To these individuals, many of whom are parents, safety means not only food free of pathogens, but food free of pesticides, antibiotic residues, and excessive processing. It means food created the old-fashioned way—from animals allowed to eat grass instead of feed made from genetically modified (GMO) grains—and sold the old-fashioned way, privately by the farmer to the consumer, who is free to visit the farm and see the animals. Many of these consumers have viewed the secretly-made videos of downer cows being prodded into slaughterhouses and chickens so crammed into coops they can barely breathe.

These consumers are clearly interpreting “safety” differently than the regulators. Some of these consumers are going further than claiming contract rights—they are pushing their towns and cities to legitimize private farmer-consumer arrangements. In Maine, residents of ten coastal towns have approved so-called “food sovereignty” ordinances that legalize unregulated food sales; towns in other states, including Massachusetts and Vermont, and as far away as Santa Cruz, CA, have passed similar ordinances.

The new legal offensive isn’t going over well with regulators anywhere. Aside from the Hershberger action in Wisconsin, and a similar one in Minnesota, Maine’s Department of Agriculture filed suit against a two-cow farmer, Dan Brown, in one of the food-sovereignty towns, Blue Hill, seeking fines and, in effect, to invalidate all the Maine ordinances. In April, a state court ruled against the farmer, and in effect against the towns; sentencing is due within several weeks, and the case could well be appealed.

The jury in the criminal misdemeanor case of Minnesota farmer Alvin Schlangen last September acquitted him of all charges after several hours of deliberation. But the regulators’ push against privately-distributed food continues unabated. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has moved forward with a local prosecutor in Schlangen’s rural county, pressing similar criminal charges as the ones he was acquitted of in Minneapolis. He is scheduled to go on trial again in August. And in Wisconsin, prosecutors sought, unsuccessfully, to have Vernon Hershberger jailed for allegedly violating his jail terms since charges were filed in late 2011.

At its heart, this is a struggle over a steady erosion of confidence in the integrity of our industrial food system, which has been hit by disturbing disclosures seemingly on a weekly basis. In just the last few weeks, for example, we have seen shrimp, cookies, and veggie burgers recalled by the FDA for being sold with undeclared ingredients.

Also in recent weeks, members of Congress and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have escalated warnings about the growing danger of antibiotic resistant pathogens emerging from farm animals, which consume about 80 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. The Atlantic reported last summer that medical specialists are seeing a spike in women with urinary tract infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, likely transmitted by chicken meat.

This erosion in the confidence of the food system carries serious implications. It financially threatens large corporations if long-established food brands come under prolonged and severe public questioning. It threatens economic performance if foods deemed “safe” become scarcer, and thus more expensive. And it is potentially explosive politically if too many people lose confidence in the professionalism of the food regulators who are supposed to be protecting us from tainted food, and encourages folks to exit the public food system for private solutions like the consumers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, and elsewhere. Just look at the vituperative corporate response to recent consumer-led campaigns to label foods with genetically-modified ingredients.

As more consumers become intent on making the final decisions on what foods they are going to feed themselves and their families, and regulators become just as intent on asserting what they see as their authority over inspecting and licensing all food, ugly scenarios of agitated citizens battling government authorities over access to food staples seem likely to proliferate. It’s an unfortunate recipe for a new kind of rights movement centered on the most basic acts—what we choose to eat.

About the Author

David Gumpert is a writer who covers the conflict between food rights and food safety. His latest book is “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights: The Escalating Battle Over Who Decides What We Eat”. His previous book was “The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights”. He has written for Modern Farmer, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Huffington Post, Grist, and Food Safety News. He is a former reporter with The Wall Street Journal and a former editor with The Harvard Business Review.

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  • carol

    Hi, agenda 21 is the problem. Most of the ecoli and other problems have come from mexico and corprate business that were selling tainted peanut butter cracker’s to eldery and food stores, remember. I love the farmer’s. GMO is the means they are using to take over food supply for agenda 21. Learn more, all you can. That’s why they don’t want us to grow gardens. Depopulation is not a joke. Take care and learn all you can. Love to all. Thank you Farmer’s!!!!!!

  • Greg Burton

    Well, of course, we can’t buy from the farmers! When the end-game approaches, the stock market crashes, the next big “terror attack” predicates marital law, opening the FEMA camps, Fed created hyper-inflation destroys the ability of American citizens to by the barest of necessities, police and fire services, impoverished, jobless and homeless by the toxic-mortgage/LIBOR scam, manufacturing out-sourced to China, Fukushima irretrievable exploding, we’ll just have to sit in our homes, in front of the TV telling everything is “OK” while we conveniently (for them) starve to death.

  • windy

    A local nursing home keeps a small flock of chickens, the old people enjoy watching them and the fresh eggs were served for breakfast. The feds came in and said they could not use their own eggs as they were not ‘federally inspected’.

    • Anonymous

      yea.. the inspected is paying the state 50 dollars.. that is what it is in tennessee. and all it is done online and they never visit the farm

  • Larry Peterson

    Tricky question for someone who lives in a rural area surrounded by farms.
    Let me turn the question back to you and ask if you think that all farmers grow natural food?
    The guy out the window is spreading, and not being a farmer,I have no idea of what for-but since his living is based on selling his crops-you can bet that he is spreading something to make his crops better. Those who have the money, hire crop-dusters. These are planes flying over the crops and dumping red chemicals on the field.Corn rows are marked with the type of seed to see what one grows best-so all are not natural. The richest farmer uses something to out-do his neighbors-all is not equal. I have no idea of how to control this. Many of us plant our own gardens-even though we are surrounded by them. I hate the idea of Federal Regulators! What are your suggestions Waking Times?

    • Anonymous

      You will not be able to grow a garden in ten years the seeds will not be sold unless you are under contract with the seed company. I just no one sees the danger of have one person or company in control . The farmers within five years will to be able to sell with out a permit and paying fees of over 2500.00 per year then the seeds will dry up and the non permitted folks will not be able to sell to anyone or even give I away . Then the seeds will dry up for the backyard farmers and if you plant a seed it will be owned by a company and you will be sued or jailed for planting it. Think I am wrong look at the corn and soybean growers they are fighting that now and so far big seed has won each case

  • Neil Walker

    “Food sold by unlicensed and uninspected farmers is potentially dangerous say the regulators, since it can carry pathogens like salmonella, campylobacter, and E.coli O157:H7, leading to mild or even serious illness.”

    It’s a fact food sold by LICENSED and INSPECTED farmers have contained the same pathogens! Look at all the recalls that take place AFTER the USDA and FDA inspected them which were tipped off not because of their inspections but because someone got sick or died!

  • It is I only

    Buying directly from the farmer? Avoiding the kosher tax & bypassing the middlejooman! No way you rotten anti-semites!

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