Crackdown on Raw Milk Reflects Agency Bias, Not Law: Health Departments Engage Police for Raids on Distribution Points
Imagine going to pick up your weekly gallon of milk, only to be met by a group of county health inspectors and sheriff’s deputies who threaten arrest if you take the milk.
Sound far-fetched? Perhaps. But that’s exactly what happened over the July 4th weekend as close to 100 raw milk customers met for their weekly pickup in a Katy, TX church parking lot.
It is completely legal to purchase Grade A unpasteurized (“raw”) milk in Texas as long as the purchase is made from the dairy farmer on the farm. Rather than have each person drive multiple hours each way to the farm, consumers across Texas have coordinated pickups by designating one person as their agent to serve as courier. The customers pay the farmer for the milk, and the courier picks up the orders and distributes them at an agreed-upon location.
In 2013, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) assured raw milk customers that they were free to make their own group arrangements. An email from a DSHS manager stated: “It is not a violation of state regulations for a dairy customer to purchase raw milk from a farmer at the farm for themselves and for others as you indicate you are doing for your COOP [sic]…It also is not a violation of state regulations for you to deliver that milk to other COOP members or to have them pick it up for you.” The email also stated that as long as it wasn’t the farmer doing the delivery, group distribution was legal.
But in the last few months, DSHS has started targeting one of the longest-established raw milk farms whose customers have made arrangements for a courier to pick up their milk. Three times, DSHS inspectors have arrived at drop points and written inspection reports, and twice the state agency has instructed local health departments that the dairies and couriers were making “illegal deliveries.”
“In this latest incident, a sheriff’s deputy told one of the customers that they’d been pulled off a domestic dispute case in order to break up the milk delivery,” said Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of independent farmers and ranchers and consumers of local foods.
“By involving the police and actually stopping people from getting their food, these incidents represent a new level of government hostility towards raw milk that is not based on any science or real health issues,” added McGeary. “There have been only six illnesses over the last twenty years linked to raw milk in Texas. This harassment of farmers and consumers is completely unjustified.”
In late May, DSHS worked with the Austin/Travis County health department and the Austin police to raid a milk delivery located at a private home. Customers were not allowed to take their milk, and officials aggressively interrogated a mother in front of her small children, bringing her to tears.
The DSHS staff claimed that the courier was operating an unlicensed “retail food establishment,” a designation normally reserved for restaurants, food trucks, and food stores. The City of Austin’s response stands in stark contrast to its decision just two months earlier to not require permits or any regulatory oversight of food delivery services such as UberEats.
Although DSHS and the City of Austin have yet to issue citations to the farmer or the driver, state health department officials still made the decision to alert the Harris County Health Department to what DSHS characterized as an illegal operation in Katy—prompting the July 2nd raid, with involvement from the sheriff’s department.
“The ability to designate someone to act on your behalf, as your agent, is a fundamental principle of law that goes back centuries,” said McGeary. “There is no basis for the government to say that my agent can’t do something that would be legal for me to do myself—such as pick up milk from a licensed dairy and bring it back to town.”
There will be further updates on the situation in Texas as developments warrant.
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