Milk a Cow, Go to Jail
Last March on the snowy coast of Maine, the citizens of Sedgwick (pop. 1,102) came together in their town hall, as they’ve been doing since about a decade after the American Revolution. Typically, they vote on local community issues. Last March, they did something a little different. They started a rebellion against the United States.
They’re not looking for a fight. They’re looking for the right to choose the food they eat. Specifically, “Sedgwick citizens possess the right to produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume local foods of their choosing.” This, it turns out, is against the law.
What Sedgwick is after has a name: “Food Sovereignty.” In spite of its kingly name, it’s a concept that comes from South American peasants.
In the mid-1990s, those peasants started to notice that the traditions that they had always counted on to feed themselves were no longer working. It wasn’t a case of backward, third-world agricultural traditions. No, it was a case of state-of-the-art First World economic theory, namely the cheerful dream that unfettered markets would produce a world where increased trade would become a tide that would lift all boats. The reality was that institutions like the World Bank and the IMF demanded “reforms” in exchange for financial aid. Those reforms, go figure, turned out to be exactly the kind of things that would make the economies of those small countries work as cogs in the cash-manufacturing operations of companies that belonged to larger countries.
In practice, this meant that cheap subsidized foods from massive agrobusinesses such as Cargill would be imported, undercutting local farmers, who had no choice but to start growing cash crops like coffee and chocolate, that they could in turn ship to the industrial north. It’s good for trade. But it wrecks the ability of a society to feed itself and when, say, a giant multinational coffee or chocolate conglomerate decides to change suppliers, people starve.
Noticing that their way of life was trashed and that their governments seemed to be complicit — and that this seemed to be happening all over — the humble farmers of many nations banded together as La Via Campesina, “The Way of the Peasant.” They are an international, multi-continent coalition of farmers, pursuing an agenda that only sounds radical when you’re accustomed to every last thing becoming monetized and financialized. Food, says Via Campesina, is about nutrition first, and trade second. Or, in short, you can’t eat money.
Back to Maine. Sedgwick was joined in its Food Sovereignty rebellion by a few other small towns with charming names like Blue Hill. Summer passed with both sides posturing, the Maine government telling Sedgwick that they can’t just make laws that disagree with State and Federal laws and Sedgwick countering that Home Rule specifically covers this sort of thing and what about the Fourth Amendment anyway?
Things finally got ugly in early November when the State of Maine filed suit against Farmer Dan Brown to force him to stop selling dairy products from his cow. That’s right, his one cow. The one he uses to provide milk for his family. He crosses the realm into criminality when he has spare milk and cottage cheese, which he sells at local farmers markets or his farmstand.
This suit isn’t really about Farmer Brown, of course. It’s a legal test of the Food Sovereignty ordinances and it should be an interesting fight, with the We Are All Farmer Brown campaign bolstering his defenses, and the State of Maine stuck between its strong home rule tradition and a need to not piss off the FDA, which supplies funds to support inspection, without which there will be no legal food production in Maine.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like — no, I love regulation of the food industry. But note that I’m talking industry, as in large corporations. For whatever reason, I’m a tad mistrustful of big, rich, powerful entities which are legally obligated to value money above all other considerations when making decisions. That’s called responsibility to shareholders. If those corporations were people, and the supreme court says they are, at least when it comes to making political contributions, that same value structure would make them sociopaths. So I view regulation as a kind of legal straitjacket that helps our corporate citizens play well with others.
As an example of why regulation is a good thing, take a look at last August and the 36 million pounds of ground turkey that Cargill recalled. Cargill, by the way, is one of the largest private companies in the world, big enough to process one-quarter of all beef consumed in the United States. But we’re talking turkey, here, turkey that shipped between February 20th and August 2nd and which contains multi-drug-resistant salmonella and which has killed one person, sickened another 78, and those are only the reported numbers.
Let’s pause, here, to understand just what 36 million pounds of contaminated turkey means. If you formed it into hamburgers and delivered it to Sedgwick, Maine, you’d end up with 106,719 hamburgers per Sedgwickian, which means they’d have to eat four a day, every day, into order to get done before dying of natural causes, which, somehow, I doubt they would.
But, they’re not getting delivered to anyone. Or rather, they were delivered, but now Cargill is taking them all back. Hopefully including that one tucked in the back of your freezer. So, imperfect, but overall, proof that the system works, that the CDC, the FDA, the USDA and the FSIS (Food Inspection Safety Service) are getting the job done.
Because distributing ground turkey squirming with salmonella that’s resistant to ampicillin, tetracycline and streptomycin… isn’t actually illegal. Salmonella, it turns out, is not classified as an adulterant. An adulterant, in case you’re rusty on your food regulation terminology, is a substance that you cannot legally distribute in food. Like e. Coli, or sawdust, or small bits of rat. Salmonella, however, is no such thing. It just… is.
What that means is that when the CDC, FDA, USDA and FSIS slowly came to understand that Cargill was shipping ground turkey that was salmonella positive in 49.9% of samples, all they could do was ask Cargill to please stop distributing lethal food.
Now, by comparison, take Denmark. In 2011, Denmark has ordered seven salmonella recalls, so it seems that we’re not the only ones with problems. The difference is that the Danes didn’t have any actual outbreaks associated with their recalls. That’s because Denmark tests the raw poultry before the processing and finding anything there is enough to trigger a recall.
Now contrast that to USDA. They’re okay with finding salmonella in raw poultry samples. Really okay. Even when it’s found in 23% of ground chicken as it was in late 2010. I suppose the assumption is that it will all get worked out somewhere down the processing chain.
Let me run that by you one more time. If you’re a hipster cyclist in Copenhagen, the hammer comes down if any poultry is so much as suspected of possibly having salmonella. If you’re a commuter in Denver, the powers that be can only suggest to the turkey producer that they might wish to consider recalling their product which is (a) 50% toxic and (b) has been sickening/killing people for for five months. So, a question: is this a regulatory failure?
Well, I went and scoured the various government websites about the recall and discovered that what we have here is a cooking failure.
In the absence of the ability to do more than suggest a “voluntary recall”, FSIS reminds us six times in 200 words of the “critical importance” of cooking said poultry-based salmonella delivery system to an internal temperature of 165° and — here comes the punchline — reminds us that “salmonella infections can be life-threatening.”
This is a crying shame. The FSIS and the FDA have a noble history going back over 100 years to the outrage sparked by The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the Chicago meat-packing industry. FSIS and FDA have done mighty things and unquestionably saved many lives. But these days they’re giving Cargill a pass and bringing the heat to Farmer Brown. This makes for a very interesting regulatory system which is both too toothless to control actual threats and also so onerous as to throttle any local food systems that could reduce our dependence upon actual threats.
You see, I have the right to “purchase, process and consume” a known pathogen like Cargill’s salmonella-infested turkey. But I don’t have the right to take my chances with Farmer Brown’s milk, which not only hasn’t made his family sick, but hasn’t sickened his repeat customers. And what’s more, I could choose to pasteurize that milk in my kitchen, exactly along the lines that I’ve been told I must sterilize Cargill’s turkey. So what, the hell, is the difference here?
It’s almost as though there’s a two-speed system here. One set of laws for very large, very rich companies whose executives have an unsettling tendency to spend time running the agencies that are supposed to regulate the industries that they came from. And another set of laws for the guy down at the farmers market who neglected to spend time as a regional manager for USDA. Spend another moment thinking about it, and you start to wonder if maybe Big Ag is starting to get worried about losing market share to Little-Local Ag, and is doing something about it.
Of course, when you start letting yourself think things like that, you start down the slippery path of conspiracy thinking. So as an antidote, I followed up on a case related to Farmer Brown’s, in Wisconsin.
The case was confusing, but basically it consisted of a group of people who wanted a source of prohibited raw milk. Their solution was to buy cows and then hire a farmer to board and milk them. All went well until about 30 people came down with sickness traced back to contamination at the farm — which was shut down by the authorities. So, here, clearly, was a case where the regulations worked and justice was done.
Still, some of the plaintiffs didn’t agree and they appealed. The judge, one Patrick J. Fiedler, denied the appeal. And he did it in sort of an interesting way. Allow me to quote from the public record of Fiedler’s response. Residents of Wisconsin, he tells us:
“Do not have a fundamental right to own and use a dairy cow or a dairy herd;”
“Do not have a fundamental right to consume the milk from their own cow;”
“Do not have a fundamental right to produce and consume the foods of their choice;”
Twenty-one days after issuing this decision, Judge Fiedler stepped down from the Wisconsin bench and took a new job. As a lawyer for one of agribusiness giant Monsanto’s law firms.
Call me paranoid.
Agribusiness Security Blanket by Ian MacKenzie
South American Local Food Rebel by Kris Krüg
Old School South American Local Food Rebels by Archivo de Proyectos
Old School North American Local Food Rebels by David Jones
Blue Hill Lighthouse by Jay Woodworth
Cargill Palm Oil Operation by Rainforest Action Network