Texas Raw Milk Victory – October 2016

After several months of hostile treatment by agents from the Texas Department of State Health Services, raw milk consumers and their farmers have something to celebrate. The Commissioner of Health and Human Services, which oversees DSHS, has pledged that the health department will NOT be taking any action against raw milk consumers or their couriers.

This is a major victory for all those who helped in this important grassroots effort!  Thank you to everyone who spoke up!

Background:

Last summer, the  Texas Department of State Health Services embarked on a new, extremely hostile approach, to regulating raw milk. FARFA has worked on a state-level bill to legalize the delivery of raw milk and sales at farmers’ markets (sales currently are legal only at the farm). Over the past several sessions, we have made steady progress toward passing the new bill.

In the meantime, however, consumers have worked together to reduce the burden imposed by the regulations; they have formed groups, and either a member of the group drives to the farm to pick up everyone’s milk, or they hire a courier to pick it up for them. In either case, the sale still occurs on the farm, with the group’s representative acting as an agent for each person, legally “standing in their shoes.”  In 2013, the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) confirmed in writing that consumers could work together to pick up and distribute their milk.

Over the course of the summer, however, raw milk consumers in Texas were faced with three inspections of private drop points – not the farm, but the location where consumers have chosen to gather to pick up milk from an agent that they had hired.  And twice these raids involved law enforcement.

FARFA filed an Open Records Act request and, although the agency appears to be hiding some documents, those that were produced provide some insight into what has been happening.

Here are some highlights:

  • In the fall of 2015, the agency staff started work on a set of proposed changes to the existing raw milk regulations. While they still would not have allowed sales at farmers’ markets, the new regulations would have explicitly allowed farmers to deliver their milk, as well as recognizing small-scale cow-and goat-shares as legal. While not everything we have been seeking through legislation, the draft regulations would have been a significant improvement. When the new DSHS commissioner, John Hellerstedt, started in January, he put an immediate halt to discussions of the draft regulations. Based on his personal view that raw milk should not be legal, he reversed all the work that had been done.
  • The same staff who saw the need to change the regulations quickly shifted into a “go get ’em” mentality, aggressively seeking ways to bust raw milk producers – even when the delivery was being done by the customers’ agent rather than the farmer.
  • DSHS intentionally tried to hide behind local health agencies. After FARFA publicized the fact that staff from the DSHS, City of Austin health department, and Austin police harassed a group of raw milk consumers, DSHS claimed that it was simply accompanying the locals at their request – even though a document produced by the City of Austin (and NOT produced by DSHS in spite of our Open Records Act request) showed that the City was acting at the direction of DSHS staff. And when DSHS decided to continue the harassment, it sent an email to the Harris County Health Department with information on another drop point, and then tried to avoid responsibility by not being physically present when Harris County sheriff’s deputies accompanied county health inspectors to the drop point.

These actions were an inexcusable abuse of power. FARFA urged our members to call their state legislators, and as a result, about a dozen legislators joined Representative Dan Flynn in a letter to Executive Commissioner Charles Smith of Texas Health and Human Services, urging Smith to rein in DSHS.

We have received a copy of Commissioner Smith’s response, in which he pledges an end to the intimidating activities of DSHS agents. 

The issues aren’t completely settled yet. There are still pending misdemeanor charges against one courier, brought by the Harris County health department, with a jury trial scheduled for December 14; since it’s a local matter, the state agency’s position doesn’t moot the case, but it should help the courier’s case. And the concession that the state agency will respect the current law, and not seek to enforce the personal biases of its new leadership, reflects how effective a grassroots effort can be when we all work together.

We have been asked, “Why fight so hard over raw milk?”

  • Precedent: If the health department can harass and attack farmers producing raw milk simply because they don’t like it (since the data doesn’t support the claims of uniquely high risks), then they can do it to any type of producer.
  • Corporate control: The real driver in the opposition to raw milk is the corporate dairy lobby. There are just a handful of large co-ops that control the dairy market, and they don’t want any competition.  This scenario is repeated in many segments of our agriculture and food industry, and we have to address it across the board.
  • Opportunities for family farmers: Dairy farmers have gone out of business in droves in the last two decades. Raw milk, sold directly to consumers, offers a way to break out of the commodity market and make a fair living selling a high-quality product.
  • Real choices for consumers: People seek out raw milk for all sorts of reasons, including supporting local farmers, wanting to know the source of their food, consuming natural, unprocessed food, and sometimes for significant health issues. Whatever the reason, people deserve to be able to choose what they put into their bodies, without unreasonable government interference.
  • Government accountability: The health arguments against raw milk really don’t stand up to scrutiny, when you consider that people can buy sushi, raw oysters, fast food, junk food, and even cigarettes far more easily than raw milk in Texas – even though all of these pose far greater food safety or other health problems. The government regulations serve the corporations that control the market, rather than serving the public, and that needs to be confronted and changed.

FARFA works for common-sense, scale-appropriate regulations that promote, not destroy, farmers’ ability to raise and sell healthy, local foods. With your help, we will change this system, piece by piece.