Back in February, I shared a story from Chicago in which over-zealous health authorities forced the destruction of thousands of dollars of locally-grown fruits, wiping out one woman’s growing small business. At the time, I noted that it was a great example of the dangers of over-reacting to food safety concerns, and predicted “Just wait until this starts happening to small farms”. Well, now it has in Missouri.
The ongoing story of Morningland Dairy needs to be followed by anyone cares about small farms and local foods. This Missouri family dairy is facing economic ruin because of poorly-run tests done by the State of California under dubious circumstances, and they are now facing an order from the Missouri State Milk Board to destroy their entire inventory of aged cheese despite no further testing on that inventory, despite FDA tests of their dairy coming up clean, and on top of weeks of forced dumping of their and other local dairies’ milk. From their latest press release:
Morningland Dairy has issued an objection to the Missouri Milk Board’s “order to destroy” their inventory of raw aged cheese. The cheese is being held on their property under an embargo issued by the Missouri Milk Board on August 26th, 2010. The embargo on all Morningland’s product was issued in response to tests done by the California Department of Food and Agriculture on cheese seized in a raid on Rawesome Foods in Venice, Ca. on June 30th. The embargo halted all production and sales of Morningland cheese.
Missouri Milk Board gave Morningland a verbal order of destruction on September 24th. Joseph Dixon, owner and General Manager of Morningland, then requested that Gene Wiseman, Executive Secretary of the Missouri Milk Board, provide written notice of the order to destroy and the method of destruction. Wiseman wrote the order to destroy on October 1st and it was hand delivered by Don Falls of the Missouri Milk Board to Morningland Dairy on October 1st, but it did not include the
Denise Dixon, owner and General Manager of Morningland Dairy says, “Morningland has been producing raw aged cheese for 30 years, and in that time, absolutely no reports of illness have been made by anyone who has consumed our product. We are, and remain, wholly committed to providing good, healthful food to our customers. The order to destroy 50,000 or so pounds of our cheese is not associated with even one complaint of illness, and we believe it’s an over reaction at best.”
Here’s Morningland’s side of the story ; read from the bottom up to follow the increasingly desperate timeline as they try to figure out what they’re even supposed to do with multiple agencies giving them conflicting information while escalating the threats.
Now, I’ve never been to Morningland and do not know what their procedures or cleanliness are like. But their accounts read true to me, as they fit a common pattern of food safety paranoia getting in the way of common sense. This could just as easily happen to a vegetable farm if a health inspector thinks they’ve found a contaminated bit of produce even if it’s not under the farm’s control (say, a grocery store or restaurant with poor handling procedures; or a customer who leaves something on a counter which has held raw meat). Indeed, some versions of the food-safety legislation working through Congress give explicit authorization for various agencies to order the closure of a farm or destruction of all their product inventory (including in field) if contamination is “suspected”.
Remind me why any sane person would want to go into farming (or any business) when you can lose it all and more to the whims of government with no recourse? Even if Morningland somehow wins this fight, they’ll never get back any money or cheese from any of the states or agencies involved. And I sure see no rational reason for us to ever contemplate entering the cheese business, despite consistent rave reviews from guests to the farm. For local foods to keep growing, farmers like us have to feel reasonably confident of their future and stories like this take that all away.
Finally, one of the core problems here is the presumption of guilt and innocence. In regulatory cases like this, it’s almost always assumed that businesses are guilty and any problem found must be a symptom of wider dysfunction. Thus the order to destroy all Morningland’s cheese stock despite no actual testing having been done on any of those batches. In addition, it’s almost always assumed that the regulatory agency involved must be innocent; they are impartial and competent upholders of the public-spirited law. Thus one lab test 2,000 miles and several months away from Morningland’s cheese room is sufficient to shut the entire business down. There is no practical framework for questioning the quality and motivation of a government agency’s actions; anyone who has battled the IRS knows this. At best you’ll win your fight and make the problem go away, but the agency will never suffer for its mistake. Until regulatory agencies are held to the same standards of guilt, innocent, proof, and penalty that private businesses and individuals are, this sort of abuse will continue.