David E. Gumpert | NSNBC
From urban farmers’ markets to charitable lemonade stands, small-scale food sources are being shut down in what can best be described as a loss of our food rights.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights: (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013), by David E. Gumpert, takes readers on a disturbing cross-country journey from Maine to California through a netherworld of Amish farmers paying big fees to questionable advisers to avoid the quagmire of America’s legal system, secret food police lurking in vans at farmers markets, cultish activists preaching the benefits of pathogens, and suburban moms worried enough about the dangers of supermarket food that they’ll risk fines and jail to feed their children unprocessed, and unregulated, foods of their choosing. Out of the intensity of this unprecedented crackdown, and the creative and spirited opposition that is rising to meet it, a new rallying cry for food rights is emerging. The following excerpt comes from chapter two, “Is There Such a Thing as Private Food?”
At 9:40 on the morning of February 4, 2010, two FDA agents in an SUV pulled up the long driveway of Daniel Allgyer’s farm in Kinzers, Pennsylvania. The agents, Joshua Schafer and Deborah Haney, were from the FDA’s Delaware office to do an inspection, they told Allgyer.
Allgyer objected. “This is a private farm. I do not sell anything to the public.”
One of the agents replied, “You sell milk to the public, therefore we have jurisdiction.” When Allgyer said he wasn’t going to cooperate, the agents said he would be reported to their superiors for his “refusal to have an investigation,” as Allgyer recalls it.
Less than three months later, the agents followed through on their threat. At 5:00 a.m. on April 20th, two FDA agents showed up again—this time accompanied by two U.S. Marshals and a Pennsylvania state trooper. As if to justify the accompanying armed officers, one of the FDA agents took a photo of the signs on several farm building doors: Warning: no trespassing . . . Attn: government employees, inspectors, and others: this is a private area, not a public area. Warning to ALL state and federal officials and informants: you must have an appointment and permission from the owner to enter this land/farm/property or building.
As Allgyer recalled the situation: “They drove past my two Private Property signs, up to where my coolers were, with their headlights shining right on them. They all got out of their vehicles—five men altogether—with big bright flashlights they were shining all around. My wife and family were still asleep. When they couldn’t find anybody, they prepared to knock on the door of my darkened house. Just before they got to the house I stepped out of the barn and hollered at them, then they came up to me and introduced themselves. Two were from the FDA, agent Joshua C. Schafer who had been there in February, and another [David Pearce]. They showed me identification, but I was too flustered to ask for their cards. I remember being told that two were deputy U.S. Marshals and one a state trooper.
“They started asking me questions right away. They handed me a paper and I didn’t realize what it was. Agent Joshua C. Schafer told me they were there to do a ‘routine inspection.’ At 5:00 in the morning, I wondered to myself. ‘Do you have a warrant?’ I asked, and one of them, a marshal or the state policeman, said, ‘You’ve got it in your hand, buddy.’
“I asked, ‘What is the warrant about?’ Schafer responded, ‘We have credible evidence that you are involved in interstate commerce.’
“They wanted me to answer some questions, my name, middle initial, last name, wanted to know how many cows we have on the farm. I answered those questions and some more. Finally, I got over my initial shock and said I would not be answering any more questions. They said OK, we’ll get on with the ‘inspection.’”
The FDA’s report of the inspection, written by investigator Schafer, pretty much jibes with Allgyer’s. “After answering questions stating that the firm is a sole proprietorship, he has owned the farm for two years, and he has 31 dairy cows that are milked two times per day, Mr. Allgyer wanted to know why we were asking these questions. I told Mr. Allgyer these questions are part of a routine inspection. Mr. Allgyer then stated that he will not answer any more questions.” The Schafer inspection report says that during the inspection “Mr. Allgyer alternated between going into his dairy barn and standing in the driveway watching us perform our inspection.”
One of the inspection’s primary goals, based on twenty-eight pages of photos that accompanied the written inspection report, appeared to be to confirm the bare-bones labeling of food products. One photo showing half-gallon and gallon containers of milk was labeled: “Products resembling milk. Photo 1 is of unlabeled containers and photo 2 is of containers labeled Goat.”
The farmer’s objection and the federal agents’ highlighting of his minimal labeling illustrate differing perceptions of what constitutes “private food.” Allgyer was supplying individual members of the food club with products produced on his farm. There were no wholesale distributors and supermarkets or mass-market retailers like Wal-Mart involved between him and the end consumers. He packaged each member’s food separately and sent the packages directly from his farm to the individual buyers.
In both his view and that of Grassfed on the Hill members, there was no need for oversight from the USDA, the FDA, or state and local public health and agriculture departments. These regulators, under the authority of federal food and drug legislation first signed into law a century earlier (and added to in subsequent years), enforce regulations governing food’s processing and labeling: pasteurization of milk, inspection of meat slaughtering and butchering, refrigeration and washing of eggs, the aging of cheese. But this official oversight is intended for commercially available products, not—in the view of food club members and farmers—foods that individuals produce and sell or trade to friends, neighbors, and acquaintances.
The plastic and glass jugs of yogurt, kefir, cream cheese, goat milk, sauerkraut, and cultured butter that Daniel Allgyer’s farm supplied to members of Grassfed on the Hill were hand-labeled in black marker: Kefir, Cream Cheese, Yogurt, Cultured Butter, Sauerkraut, Goat (for the goat milk), and so forth. After all, there were no wholesalers or distributors who needed to know the exact source of the food. The food never came close to any retail store’s shelves. The food club members didn’t need or want ingredient labels beyond the handwritten identification given that there were no thickeners, sweeteners, preservatives, or artificial colors added to any of it. In the event Allgyer needed to supplement his farm’s products with milk or butter from a neighboring Amish farm, he alerted Karine Bouis-Towe and Liz Reitzig, the administrators of the club, and they included a note in e-mails to members that a particular product came from a neighbor of Allgyer.
What was it about privately distributed food, direct from an Amish farm, that aroused so much attention from federal regulators that they thought it necessary to conduct an investigation and recruit armed escorts for the investigators? After all, we weren’t that far removed from a time when most food in the United States was distributed the way Daniel Allgyer was doing it, direct from farms to the individuals who ate it.
The Recent History of Food
For much of human history, well into the nineteenth century, food was a private matter. People raised their own food and traded for what they didn’t produce themselves. In the United States, as the country became more urbanized, people purchased more of their food, often from farm stores and stands on the outskirts of towns and cities or from small specialty shops—butchers, fish stores, bakeries, fruit and vegetable sellers—who obtained it directly from producers. In suburban areas in the 1940s and 1950s, even into the 1970s in some areas, farmers would deliver. Peddlers came around with meat and eggs. And there was the ever-present milkman.
The advent of huge supermarkets in the 1950s and 1960s, with convenient locations and vast selections of foods, began to supplant the butchers, fish stores, and peddlers. It also heralded the formalization of a regulated “public” commercial system of food distribution. This new system of clean and modern food outlets presented consumers with bins of glistening vegetables and fruits, neatly cut meat and fish in wrapped plastic trays, and milk in plastic or waxed cardboard containers. The public system has continued to expand—chains of 7-Elevens, huge Wal-Marts on highways outside towns large and small, and fast-food franchises crowding strip malls across the country.
In the public system’s expansion, farming has become increasingly removed from the output process of the nation’s food. More and more of the nation’s farms have become essentially subcontractors to huge corporations that dictate the feed, breed, housing, and life span for chickens, pigs, and cattle. The corporations pay fixed prices that often allow the farmer little or no profit. These contractor-farmers have ever less negotiating leeway since the Big Ag corporations behind the contracts have consolidated into only a few producers. These corporations have effectively taken control of the meat business in this country.
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