Armed Federal Agents Declare War on ... Milk
May 25, 2011
Carolyn Lochhead / San Francisco Chronicle
Pennsylvania Amish farmer Dan Allgyer has become a cause celebre for raw milk drinkers as the target of a Food and Drug Administration campaign -- using sting operations and guns-drawn raids usually reserved for terrorists and drug lords -- to eliminate unpasteurized milk. Allgyer has refused media requests for interviews on religious grounds, and is said to be reluctant even to hire a lawyer to defend himself out a belief in nonviolence.
Dan Allgyer Latest Target in FDA War on Raw Milk
Carolyn Lochhead / San Francisco Chronicle
WASHINGTON (May 22, 2011) -- Pennsylvania Amish farmer Dan Allgyer has become a cause celebre for raw milk drinkers as the target of a Food and Drug Administration campaign -- using sting operations and guns-drawn raids usually reserved for terrorists and drug lords -- to eliminate unpasteurized milk.
Such milk, also known as raw or fresh milk, is legal in California and considered essential to Europe's finest cheeses, creams and butters.
But under the authority of a 1987 FDA regulation banning interstate commerce in raw milk, government agents have conducted a sting operation on a raw milk producer in Fresno, made three raids on a boutique goat cheese maker in Ventura County and descended with guns drawn on a raw milk buying club in Venice (Los Angeles County).
Allgyer is the latest to feel the force of a years-long Food and Drug Administration campaign against raw milk that has focused on tiny farms and consumer co-ops.
Mark McAfee, owner of Organic Pastures Dairy in Fresno, which sells raw milk to 50,000 customers a week in 400 stores in the Bay Area and the rest of the state, was the subject of an undercover investigation three years ago by federal agents, becoming the largest dairy owner targeted so far.
"They refuse to acknowledge raw milk can be done in a safe manner," McAfee said of the FDA. "The state of California is very effectively doing that. ... There is no recorded evidence anywhere, any place -- the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, anybody -- that shows anybody has ever died from raw milk in California."
Still, the agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention insist that unpasteurized milk is unsafe. Pasteurization involves cooking milk at a high temperature to kill listeria, E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens that can enter milk through manure and prove deadly, particularly in children, the elderly or persons with weakened immune systems.
Raw milk drinkers say cooking milk diminishes its flavor and nutrients. They said similar sterilization standards, if applied across the American diet, would ban sushi, medium-rare steaks, oysters on the shell and most raw fruits and vegetables.
The Food Safety and Modernization Act approved by Congress last year and signed by President Obama in January has vastly enhanced the agency's powers. Starting July 3, the agency can confiscate any food at any farm that it deems unsafe or mislabeled.
The FDA filed an injunction against Allgyer on April 19, accusing him of "contributing to the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases" at his Rainbow Acres Farm in Kinzer, Pa., where he tends three dozen cows and sells their raw milk to a small buyers club in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.
The agency has not found Allgyer's milk to be contaminated, but it claims Allgyer is "engaged in milking cows and packaging, labeling, selling and distributing unpasteurized cow milk across state lines."
Federal agents began a sting operation on Allgyer in October 2009, posing as consumers to infiltrate the Grassfed on the Hill buying club that bought Allgyer's milk. The agents placed orders, getting Allgyer to deliver milk across the Maryland state line.
In April 2010, FDA agents, US marshals and a state trooper made a predawn raid on his farm. There, they discovered "numerous portable coolers in the defendant's driveway that appeared to be milk," the injunction said.
Allgyer has refused media requests for interviews on religious grounds, and is said to be reluctant even to hire a lawyer to defend himself out a belief in nonviolence.
"Farming is his livelihood; he doesn't know anything else," said Liz Reitzig, a member of the buying club who organized a rally for Allgyer on Capitol Hill last week. "It seems ridiculous to me that, during a budget crisis, the FDA is spending money on an undercover sting against an Amish farmer for milk."
Jonathan Emord, a food and drug attorney who is consulting with the buying club about a possible lawsuit, said the agency wants Allgyer to pay for its investigation, which could put the farmer out of business.
"There is not a single bit of evidence to show that any of the milk from Dan's cows injured anyone," Emord said.
FDA spokeswoman Tamara Ward did not to reply to a question about how the agency prioritizes its cases.
"No more can be said about the Rainbow Acres case than what has already been released to the public," she wrote in an e-mail. The agency's press release said, "Drinking raw milk is dangerous and shouldn't be consumed under any circumstances."
GOP presidential candidate and Texas congressman Ron Paul has introduced legislation to lift the ban on interstate commerce in raw dairy products and the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund is seeking to lift the ban in court.
Retail sales of raw milk are legal in 10 states, including California, while another 10 ban it. Regulations vary in other states, with some having no laws and others allowing farms to sell directly to consumers or only as pet food.
Federal health records show 86 outbreaks of illness caused by raw milk from 1998 through 2008, resulting in 191 hospitalizations and two deaths. Because raw milk makes up an estimated 3 percent of the nation's milk, critics say the outbreaks indicate a risk far out of proportion to other foods. Many of the raw milk outbreaks have come from Mexican soft cheese known as queso fresco.
Devotees of raw milk contend that such outbreaks pale compared with other foods, and that good sanitation and testing can ensure safety.
Despite raw milk's tiny market share, McAfee said, milk processors are behind efforts to ban raw milk because they see the product as a competitive threat. He said demand for pasteurized milk is falling about 1 percent a year, and farmers can earn as much as 10 times more money for raw milk than they do selling to processors.
"The fluid milk markets are dying on the vine because people can't digest it, it's too allergenic and it's got lactose intolerance," McAfee said. "Raw milk is an out-of-control milk. It's by the farmer directly to the consumer, so all the dairy industry people are upset that they are losing control of the market."
Peggy Armstrong, a spokeswoman for the International Dairy Foods Association, cited a letter to Congress from her organization and the National Milk Producers Association saying that "while consumer choice is an important value, it should not pre-empt public health and well-being."
Throughout Europe, uncooked milk is the norm, dispensed in vending machines in Switzerland, Austria, France, Italy, Slovenia and the Netherlands. It is healthy, adherents say, because it contains fat that is not broken down by homogenization and is free of antibiotics and hormones, because cows are raised in small herds on pastures.
Nutritionist Sylvia Onusic, a raw milk devotee, said heating milk diminishes its taste.
"Raw milk is a potential hazardous food, but only in the United States, and I guess Canada, too," she said. (Raw milk is also banned in Australia and Scotland.) "It's a totally different food world here. Everything is sterilized and beaten into submission."
E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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