The Dairy Work Group (DWG) of the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), Division of Food, Drugs and Dairies, met again Monday, November 4, 2013 in Bloomington. Since January of this year, the group has met five times, discussed pages of rules and regulations proposed by IDPH, but still cannot agree on rules that, according to some DWG members, are legal, constitutional, or reasonable.
“The Dairy Work Group, a subcommittee of the Food Safety Advisory Committee, a group that reports to the head of The Illinois Department of Public Health, met again,” wrote Donna O’Shaughnessy, who operates South Pork Ranch LLC in Chatsworth, IL, on her blog (http://midlifefarmwife.blogspot.com/). “Got that? Layers of confusion is what government does best. Transparency of those layers is where government fails.”
In April and May, The Prairie Advocate published a series of articles attempting to show how an Illinois agency, the Illinois Department of Public Health, feels the need to regulate and control the state’s Raw Milk farmers and consumers, despite the contrary evidence that any regulation is required (archived at www.pacc-news.com).
Several of the people attending the Nov. 4 meeting voiced their concerns that the views of the raw Milk advocates on the committee were being misrepresented, if not outright ignored.
“IDPH Food Drugs and Dairies Director Steve Divicenzo announced in our meeting Nov. 4, that, ‘We already control all the food in Illinois,’” reported Donna O’Shaughnessy, who operates South Pork Ranch LLC in Chatsworth, IL. “One of our group members stated that the last thing this state needed was more government oversight of food produced on small farms. What Mr. Divincenzo did not hear were the farmers at the table saying, ‘Oh no you don’t.’ Every time we think we are making progress IDPH slams us with an incorrect interpretation of what was said at the last meeting.”
O’Shaughnessy said the committee received the minutes from the September meeting on Friday, Nov. 1, just one business day before the Nov. 4 meeting. “The ‘summary’ we received reported that we were all in agreement with a two tier system, specifically, that Tier 1 would require inspections and a mandatory permit for those farmers who wish only to sell to customers directly on the farm. In fact, we are opposed to any inspections under the proposed Tier 1.”
During the meeting, Leonard Sheaffer, a Dixon-area farmer, said that the IDPH “legal department wants all the liability to be put on the farmer.” He referred to some people he knows that make kefir, a fermented drink that “sits under the kitchen sink fermenting, and if it goes bad, the producer could be held liable, even though they have no control over what the customer does with it after the sale.
“Once the person buys the milk, they know what they are buying - the liability should go on to them.”
Kathryn Pirtle, a raw milk consumer from Chicago, speaker, professional musician and author of “Performance without Pain,” compared the purchase of raw milk to ordering raw fish, “Like when you go to a suishi restaurant . . . you’re buying it, you’re eating it, you are well-aware that there could be a risk to your health, just like buying eggs from the store. Who knows if someone will eat them raw? That’s their problem.”
During an interview at his farm, Mark Gravert of Spring Valley Farm in Fulton, IL, who also attended the meeting, said it’s the same old song and dance. “Every time we go down, nobody takes the minutes correctly, they misconstrue them, and they are not recorded properly.
“As raw milk producers, we believe that the consumer acknowledges that they have taken the responsibility for buying our product. They are coming to our farms to get raw milk - let them decide if they think it’s healthy for them.”
Tired of this trend, O’Shaughnessy and others representing the Raw Milk producers presented a letter at the Nov. 4 meeting to Molly Lamb, Chief, Division of Food, Drugs and Dairies with the IDPH. The letter, in part, states that several current members of the Dairy Work Group are concerned about the direction the group is taking.
“In order to clarify this issue we wish to put into writing our recommendations for a Tier 1 classification of raw milk producers. They are:
1. Voluntary registration by the raw milk farmer with the Illinois Department of Public Health; 2. Posting of informational signs on the farms where raw milk is sold, stating that the milk is not pasteurized; 3. Direct to consumer sales from the premises of the raw milk farm only, with the consumer providing his own container.
“Any other suggested requirements for a raw milk farm under a Tier 1 designation such as inspections, limited sales amounts, mandatory testing, required permits, etc., have not been agreed to by those of us who have signed this letter.”
They also requested that a copy of the letter be attached to the minutes of the Nov. 4 meeting, “so that there will be no further confusion regarding what we have and have not agreed to in regards to a Tier 1 designation.”
“Perhaps this time, what we say and what is recorded in the minutes will actually match up,” said O’Shaughnessy. “But I guess we won’t know until the next meeting which has not yet been scheduled.”
O’Shaughnessy, Pirtle, Sheaffer and Gravert all agreed that the rest of the meeting was fairly tense, mainly due to the differences of opinion regarding why there needed to be any rules at all, and why these meetings could not be better structured.
IDPH holds their ground
During the meeting, Lamb reminded the group that, “in accordance with the rules that were drafted for the sale of raw milk, there are actually no rules on the books. So you have [been in a practice] that’s never had any support as RULES. Technically, since there are no rules, it’s prohibited altogether right now. We’re trying to write rules to make some of what’s been in practice actually LEGAL in some way.
“We’ve been trying to entertain and compromise as much as we can with you. There are some parameters that, as we write rules, it’s not just . . . what we’ve done for 30 years, but it’s making it better, making improvements for ALL the stakeholders, including both the regulatory side, and your side, and industry side . . . it’s making sure that we’re doing it with a lot of quality, and not just because that’s what it said, and that’s the way we’re going to move ahead with it.”
An unidentified person asked Lamb if she was aware that at one time, Illinois had a motorcycle helmet law. “What happened to that law? It was proven by the Illinois Supreme Court that it was unconstitutional, and violated the 14th Amendment . . . With my right as a consumer, who can tell me what I can buy and put in my body? I don’t think that will stand up in a court of law.”
Lamb then referred to some of the dialogue from the Sept. meeting, where they discussed “the back and forth with the containers,” agreeing to go back to “consumer containers.” IDPH also determined that requiring Raw Milk Farmers (RMF) to obtain consumer data did not make sense, as the RMF compared their sales to Farmers Markets, who were not required to collect consumer data.
“We are trying to listen. Those are just 2 or 3 examples of the points you brought to us, and we decided, ‘point well-taken.’ But there are some parts of it that we just asked you to entertain OUR reasoning. One of these points is education, inspections and standards. We don’t want to leave this meeting without any agreements. I want to see us talk through it as a group.”
“What is confusing is that these were the discussions, but there were so many of us that said over and over and over again, that we don’t want a permit; we don’t want a license; we don’t want inspections,” O’Shaughnessy replied. “Even though it says, yes, we had that discussion - and we certainly did - what it doesn’t say is, what majority of the room were opposed to those things? It’s frustrating when we see this in writing, and then the assumption is made that we must have agreed on it, because it’s in the minutes, when agreement didn’t happen. When we don’t take votes, and it is unstructured, that’s where that frustration comes from, because now we have given you three very simple recommendations for Tier 1, but we are handed back 2 pages to discuss about inspections, when we have said, no inspections. It is difficult to want to discuss this.”
“This group is advisory,” Lamb stated. “There are parts that we are going to agree to disagree. There are parts that may not come from this group that are in complete agreement . . . We are at the table trying to work through the best we can, but part of what we as a department . . . see the significance and importance . . . it’s not you, Donna, or you, Mark, that I’m worried about. It’s the one that we discussed that comes out from Chicago and decides they want to buy one cow and wants to start a dairy farm and has no idea what they’re doing . . . thinking about the entire scope of what we are dealing with, not you who are at this table. Yeah, you are not the worries, you guys know what you’re doing. You’ve been in the business a long time. You would meet these (regulations) with flying colors. We would not have to discuss anything.”
Then why have any regulations at all? Gravert talked about the 2-tier system presented in the letter. “Their legal department now says that we can’t call it ‘voluntary registration,’ we have to call it a ‘permit.’ They want to know where all the raw milk farmers are. If it’s voluntary, they think that no one will sign up, and maybe they won’t. The IDPH wants to know where you’re at, the theory being that if there is an outbreak of illness related to raw milk, they know who is in the area that sells it, which would not be difficult to assess anyway.”
“I don’t come to these meetings for myself,” Gravert stated. “I do it for the people who don’t, or can’t, speak for what they believe in. I know many of the Amish and Mennonites sell milk . . . and they can’t battle for themselves . . . you’ve got to watch for the little guy, it’s not always about the money. It’s about what you believe in, what is right.
“This whole food industry has gone crazy. I cringe every day at the number of regulations and bureaucracy that we have to go through being small farmers. The only way a small farmer can survive today is by selling their product themselves. Corporate America Agriculture has gotten to be big business because they have to have the production numbers just to pay that middle-man who sells that product for them. That’s where you’re losing your money. Every time you have to have somebody sell your product for you, that’s a percentage that you could be getting.”
Gravert was asked if these proposed regulations and standards protect the consumer, as they are intended to do, or do they restrict their choices, based on the consumer’s belief that the product is a healthy choice for their families?
“Everyone has been brainwashed over the past 100 years, and have been brought to the idea that raw milk will kill you,” Gravert replied. “We both know that it won’t. I believe that no matter how badly you treat raw milk, I don’t think it will kill you. You have to actually put a bad substance into it from some other source. Milk doesn’t go bad, it just changes form.”
Is the 2 tier system proposed the answer? Or will accepting these rules compromise the rights of both the RMF and the consumers?
“I do not think that anybody with only one or 2 cows should have to worry about anything,” said Gravert. “They are not flooding the market with milk. Are there facilities not up to grade? Possibly, but there again, the buyer has to be the party that does the inspecting. If you think that cow has been milked in unsanitary conditions, then don’t buy it. If you think the person that’s doing the milking is not doing a proper job, of cooling, or handling, then don’t buy it. No different than when you go to a retail store. If the store is dirty, or something is not done right, or if they don’t treat you right, you’re not going to buy there.
“Pasteurized milk gets sour. We don’t know how that’s handled. All the stops made in between the producer on the farm to the store. We don’t know how long it sits on the loading dock before it’s put in the cooler at the store. Mine goes from the cow to the cooler to your jar, and you take it home. Pretty simple.”
Gravert believes the IDPH is over-regulating. “We only need more regulations if we are selling it retail. Once you start handling anything, the more you handle it, the more possibilities exist that you can contaminate it. I believe we don’t need more regulations. IDPH won’t believe that there is 35 years of documented information that raw milk has not killed or made anyone sick in the state of Illinois. It doesn’t matter to them. Molly Lamb said it several times: If there are no rules, it’s illegal. This is why we need to ask our elected officials what they think of this reasoning.”
O’Shaughnessy said the task now is to go through the two full pages of “proposed rules” given to the group, “not written by us.”
The next meeting will more than likely take place in January 2014.