(Grist) – When the 20 agents arrived bearing a search warrant at her Ventura County farmhouse door at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday a couple weeks back, Sharon Palmer didn’t know what to say. This was the third time she was being raided in 18 months, and she had thought she was on her way to resolving the problem over labeling of her goat cheese that prompted the other two raids. (In addition to producing goat’s milk, she raises cattle, pigs, and chickens, and makes the meat available via a CSA.)
But her 12-year-old daughter, Jasmine, wasn’t the least bit tongue-tied. “She started back-talking to them,” recalls Palmer. “She said, ‘If you take my computer again, I can’t do my homework.’ This would be the third computer we will have lost. I still haven’t gotten the computers back that they took in the previous two raids.”
As part of a five-hour-plus search of her barn and home, the agents — from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, Los Angeles County Sheriff, Ventura County Sheriff, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture — took the replacement computer, along with milk she feeds her chickens and pigs.
While no one will say officially what the purpose of this latest raid was, aside from being part of an investigation in progress, what is very clear is that government raids of producers, distributors, and even consumers of nutritionally dense foods appear to be happening ever more frequently. Sometimes they are meant to counter raw dairy production, other times to challenge private food organizations over whether they should be licensed as food retailers.
The same day Sharon Palmer’s farm was raided, there was a raid on Rawesome Foods, a Venice, Calif., private food club run by nutritionist and raw-food advocate Aajonus Vonderplanitz. For a membership fee of $25, consumers can purchase unpasteurized dairy products, eggs that are not only organic but unwashed, and a wide assortment of fermented vegetables and other products.
The main difference in the two raids seems to be that Palmer’s raiding party was actually much smaller, about half the size of the Venice contingent: Vonderplanitz was also visited by the FBI and the FDA.
In the Rawesome raid, agents made off with several thousand dollars worth of raw honey and raw dairy products. They also shut Rawesome for failure to have a public health permit, though the size and scope of the raid suggests the government officials might have more in mind. Regardless, within hours the outlet reopened in defiance of the shutdown order.
Earlier in June, agents of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, escorted by police and also bearing search warrants, raided and shut down Traditional Foods Warehouse, a popular food club in Minneapolis specializing in locally-produced foods. They also raided two farms suspected of illegally selling raw milk. And in a national first among such raids, agents searched a private home and made off with computers; the family’s offense appears to have been that it allowed one of the raw dairy farmers to park in its driveway to distribute raw milk to area residents who had ordered it.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has declined comment on such raids, saying they are part of an ongoing investigation into raw milk distribution in the state in lieu of eight illnesses in May linked to raw milk.
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection has launched three raids over the last three months on the dairy farm and farm store of Vernon Hershberger, near Madison. The day after DATCP agents placed seals on his fridges storing raw dairy products in July, Hershberger cut the seals, and announced he was going to challenge the agency’s contention he needs a dairy and retail license to sell his products. Obtaining such licenses would be problematic, though, since Wisconsin prohibits sale of raw milk, except “incidental” sales, and defining “incidental” has been a bone of contention for many years. In any event, Hershberger contends he sells only to consumers who contract privately for his food.
What’s behind all these raids? They seem to stem from increasing concern at both the state and federal level about the spread of private food groups that have sprung up around the country in recent years — food clubs and buying groups to provide specialized local products that are generally unavailable in groceries, like grass-fed meats, pastured eggs, fermented foods, and, in some cases, raw dairy products. Because they are private and limited to consumers who sign up for membership, these groups generally avoid obtaining retail and public health licenses required of retailers that sell to the general public.
In late 2008 and early 2009, the representatives of state agriculture agencies in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois met via phone conferences with representatives of the FDA to map a plan for targeting raw-milk buying clubs in the Midwest. The meetings came to light after Max Kane, the owner of a Wisconsin buying club who was subpoenaed by Wisconsin authorities for the names of his customers and suppliers, obtained email accounts of the sessions via a Freedom of Information request to Wisconsin’s Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection department. (Kane has since been prosecuted by Wisconsin authorities for contempt of court for failing to give up the names; his case is under appeal after he was found guilty last December.)
Now, the Midwest program seems to have gone national, and the recent spate of raids suggests a quickening pace and broadened scope. While most raids before the Midwest government meetings had been related to raw-milk distribution, some, like a December 2008 armed raid of Manna Storehouse, an Ohio food club near Cleveland, have been about licensing issues. In that raid, armed law enforcement officers held a mother and eight young children being home-schooled at gunpoint for several hours while they searched the home and food storage areas. A legal challenge to the raid by the family is still tied up in court.
The current uptick has Pete Kennedy of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund concerned, not only about the spreading of the raids, but about the seemingly easy willingness of judges to hand out search warrants. While the U.S. Constitution’s fourth amendment suggests judges should exercise tight controls over search warrants (“no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause…”), Kennedy observes, “I haven’t seen an agency turned down yet” over the last four years in requests for search warrants connected with raw milk and other food production and distribution.
Given that the targets of search warrants don’t get a say in court as to whether they should be issued, legal experts and those who have been raided say the most that food producers can do is take steps to prepare themselves to weather the raids as best they can.
Here are five suggestions they offer:
- Be wary of strangers who want to join your private buying group or herdshare: Before they seek out a search warrant, regulators invariably nose around and infiltrate private buying groups or raw milk herdshares to gain information on “probable cause.” They’ll often make up sad stories as to why they should be allowed to join. Gary Cox of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund recalls how an undercover agent from the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets infiltrated Meadowsweet Dairy LLC, a private organization of 120 Ithaca consumers who bought shares to gain access to raw dairy products, in 2007: “He was insistent. ‘I live so far away, and I only come here so very infrequently, so can’t I at least have some (milk) today, PLEEEEEEEASE, because otherwise I won’t be able to get any for a long time.’ Barb Smith felt sorry for him and relented. We know what the consequence was of her kindness.” The consequence was an open-ended search warrant that agents used several times in late 2007 and early 2008 to confiscate product, leading up to a legal challenge to the LLC that is currently under appeal following rulings in New York state courts against Meadowsweet.
- Have a video camera at the ready: Since search warrants are usually specific as to what can be searched and/or seized, a video recording of events inhibits abuses by regulators and other law enforcement personnel. Regulators and law enforcement officials definitely don’t appreciate being videotaped, and sometimes will simply disconnect videos or order targeted individuals to put the videos away. According to Aajonus Vonderpanitz, in the June raid of his Rawesome Foods outlet, “They unplugged our surveillance camera to hide their actions. They threateningly refused video capture of their raid when members commenced filming.”
- Have a plan of action: Much like planning how your family might escape a fire, decide in advance who will handle the video camera, who will collect business cards or take down the names of all agents, and who will interact with the regulators. The regulators and police count on the element of surprise to sow confusion, and keep the targets from responding intelligently.
- Read the search warrant fine print: Sometimes there are limitations on the search warrants that targets can exploit. Vernon Hershberger, the Wisconsin dairy farmer, was able to slow the regulators down because he knew the search warrant in his case likely wouldn’t allow forcible entry, so when agents returned a second time, after he cut the seals on his fridges, he locked his farm store doors and they were forced to leave. They eventually returned with an amended warrant that specifically allowed them to take his computer.
- Keep computer backups: In nearly all such raids, the authorities confiscate computers so they can document transactions and customer interactions. If you don’t have a backup of what’s on your disk, you can literally be put out of business. Moreover, it’s advisable to monitor what information you keep on the computer in the farmhouse or in your food club. There’s something to be said for backing up every few days onto another computer kept off-site.