Is it a food safety and public health issue? Or is it a matter of a funda-mental right for individuals to choose what to eat? Those questions represent the positions taken by opposing sides in an ongoing debate over cottage industry and homestead scale raw goat milk production in the state of Virginia. Some people think the debate has national implications. Others are attempting to confine it to individual farms.
"Our position is always that this is a public health issue and the hazards of consuming unpasteurized milk-cow milk, sheep milk, goat milk, we don’t care what kind of milk it is-are well documented," said John Beers, a Program Supervisor in the Office of Dairy and Foods for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "There’s a long history of human illness associated with unpasteurized milk and we feel we’re justified by the scientific data."
Beers’ department is locked into battle with not only small scale dairy goat milk producers but other small scale on-farm food processors.
Joel Salatin, who processes chickens on his farm, sees the Department of Agriculture’s position as one striking at a fundamental right to choose what you want to eat. Salatin, who has struggled with the Department over on-farm chicken processing regulations, has banded together with small dairy goat farmers, consumers, and small farmers in general to protect that right of food choice. Their particular goal is to stop the state of Virginia from requiring homestead raw goat milk cheese makers from having to build specialized pasteurization and milk handling facilities.
"Food safety is not objective," Salatin, president of the food choice advocacy group Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, said. "Food safety is very subjective. Right now government officials believe that irradiation, chlorine poultry baths, and pasteurization are all extremely safe but there’s a significant volume of evidence to disprove that. There are a number of people who do not trust either the government officials or the system to tell them what is or is not safe."
Salatin said he doesn’t think bureaucrats such as Beers, and agencies such as the Virginia Department of Agriculture, are involved in a conspiracy with large agribusiness to shut small farmers down.
"They just have a radically different world view," Salatin said. "At one of the regulatory hearings I attended, John Beers said anyone who would espouse this food freedom idea is bordering on criminal. That is the kind of regulatory climate we’re in and it is absolutely destroying the freedom of food choice in our state."
Although there may be no conspiracy to shut down small farms Salatin’s organization, along with the Virginia State Dairy Goat Association, assert that the regulations proposed by the Department of Agriculture will likely shut down a number of homestead goat cheese operations.
At present it is illegal to sell unpasteurized milk in Virginia but cheese made from raw goat milk is unregulated. As a result, people with small milking herds have been making and selling cheese from their Virginia farms and at farmer’s markets.
Christine Solem, who has 16 dairy goats in Albemarle County, summed up the farmers’ complaints regarding the proposed goat cheese regulations in a letter she wrote to Governor Mark Warner during the summer of 2003.
"The cost to comply with these new regulations is approximately $50,000.00, (and is) unacceptable for a small farmer," Solem wrote.
"In addition the regulations are burdensome and oppressive, requir ing standardized cheese making procedures, extensive record keeping, and mandating that business be done on a daily basis or a permit may be denied (2 VAC-5-531-40 (C))."
"Many small goat farmers who have been producing their own unique cheeses freely in their own way for many years and selling these cheeses locally on a seasonal basis will be forced to stop, and their farms will no longer be able to survive. Virginia cannot afford to lose any more farms," she wrote.
Solem’s letter asked the Governor of Virginia to set aside the regulations, which had been adopted by the Department of Agriculture’s Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services on May 13, 2003, until after the 2004 legislative session. Solem wasn’t the only one to make that request.
Citizen pressure may have been the reason the Governor took no action on the Department’s regulations and effectively put them on hold until at least the end of the legislative session some time in April 2004. The farmers may actually have been helped by their recalcitrant words and actions.
When the Board of Agriculture met to approve the regulations last May, John Coles, Solem’s husband, told them that if they passed the regulations he would simply violate them by continuing to sell cheese in the old way.
Coles’ remark was printed in newspapers in Richmond, the capitol city. Christine Solem, and John Coles, have struggled with state regulators for a quarter of a century.
"We first got into trouble in 1979," Christine said. "We were selling milk raw off the farm. We felt people had a right to buy it so we rented our goats to the customers. They took us to court on that but we won. Then it went to the Supreme Court and since we still had title to the goats it didn’t work so I changed my scheme. I sold interest in my goats. They took us to court again and we won again but that was also over turned by the Virginia Supreme Court. They said it was a scam because I didn’t sell the whole goat and I gave away some of the milk."
Throughout the legal wrangling Solem did her own research and represented herself all the way to the Supreme Court.
"I’m not a lawyer but I had to do itmyself or I couldn’t afford to fight it," Solem said. "I sure learned a lot."
After the Supreme Court ruled that selling partial interest in goats was just a scam to get around the pasteurization regulations Solem and Coles decided to sell the entire goat to customers.
"That’s still valid today and a lot of people do it," she said. "You keep the milk separate. They never challenged it. We did that for a number of years. We sell somebody the goat but we keep it here and milk it. They come by and pick up the milk. It works but it’s a legal pain in the behind. One of the people died and, of course, legally her share of the goat goes to her estate. I had to go to her grieving husband and ask if he would sell her share. That was too much."
Discovering that goat cheese was unregulated in Virginia was a revelation to Solem and Coles. Her experience reading statutes, regulations, and legal opinions trained her to spot what she describes as a loop hole in the regulations.
"Cow cheese is regulated but goat cheese isn’t," Solem said. "They probably wouldn’t tell you that if you called them up on the phone though."
Solem admits she hates to cook, so Coles set about learning how to make a fresh raw goat cheese in their home kitchen. He added a few herbs from the garden and sold it out the front door and at the farmer’s market. Although they clean the kitchen when they make the cheese Solem describes her home in general as not being particularly sanitary.
While Coles was busy making cheese, Solem continued to push for small farmers’ rights against John Beers and his associates at the Department of Agriculture. One day, in the summer 1999, they’d had enough. They came banging at her door.
"If I’d known they were coming I’d have baked them a cake," Solem, who was working through an exercise tape at the time, said. "They wanted to come in. I asked them if they had a warrant. They didn’t. I told them to leave."
They left, but came back with a warrant. Solem stood silently by as the officials tromped through not only her kitchen but her entire home. The took cheese samples. They took photos. And they left the door open on their way out.
"They left the door open and then accused me of having flies in the house," Solem said.
With the evidence gathered, the Department of Agriculture officials charged Solem with a string of violations under the Virginia food manufacturing law. Then Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture J. Carlton Courter III and the State’s Attorney General took Virginia’s fightingest goat lady to court. And they lost. Solem, who represented herself, knew she wasn’t a food manufacturer.
"I’m a farmer. I’m in the business of farming and not food manufacturing. There’s lots of case law on that," she said.
The judge agreed. But Solem was after bigger fish. She felt that her constitutional rights had been trampled. The Department of Agriculture had violated her Fourth Amendment rights to privacy and to unwarranted searches of her home, she asserted. After she beat the Commissioner of Agriculture at his law suit, Solem turned around and sued him. She wanted to be safe from the threat of future warrantless searches. The State was taken aback. They claimed since they lost the first lawsuit there was no longer a contest. They wanted Solem’s suit dismissed. The District Court judge disagreed.
"We are enjoined from inspecting her without a warrant," John Beers said. "That applies to her and only her."
The Judge’s decision, issued November 21, 2001, was based on the government’s right to conduct warrantless searches of licensed, or "pervasively regulated" businesses or industries, but not private homes.
A large milk bottling plant is licensed and it is understood that inspections, or warrantless searches, will take place from time to time.The plant is pervasively regulated. Homestead goat cheese making is not licensed in Virginia, is not pervasively regulated, and thus not subject to warrantless searches. Solem and Coles had their Fourth Amendment rights dishonored by government agents, Judge Paul M. Peatross, Jr., said.
The nature of the court proceedings made the decision only apply to Solem and Coles. The State did not appeal it. Instead they set out to establish regulations for goat milk cheese. They also set out to take other homestead cheese makers to court. There are now four Virigina goat cheese makers involved in court proceedings, Solem said.
"One was a sting operation," Solem said. "They came to the farm posing as normal people wanting to buy some cheese. She sold them cheese and they came back later and tried to get into her home. I guess they needed to make somebody an example. She even said she’d stop making cheese and they still prosecuted her. They are trying to intimidate people."
That is, of course, one world view. John Beers has another.
"Pasteurization in the early 1900s was credited with single handedly reducing the infant mortality rate in New York City," Beers said.
"Prior to the implementation of pasteurization, diarrheal diseases were a major cause of infant mortality. The simple process of pasteurization significantly reduced infant mortality."
Although there is no evidence of anybody ever getting sick from raw goat milk cheese made in the kitchens of Virginia farmers, Beers said it would be irresponsible for his agency to wait until somebody does get sick before implementing regulations. Joel Salatin, however, suggests that Beers’ agency should focus on where food poisoning outbreaks are already taking place.
"You know that the accidents are happening already every day when you read the newspaper," he said, "and they’re not cottage industry dairy operations. They are happening in the inspected plants. The Government Accounting Office released a report about six years ago identifying the culprit in food borne pathogen outbreaks. The culprits are centralization of processing and production and the long distances that food travels in the distribution system."
For their part John Coles, Christine Solem, and the Salatin family continue to raise, process, and market high quality and safe cheese and poultry from their farms. John Coles made things clear at a Department of Agriculture hearing last summer when he told officials that even if regulations make it illegal he’ll continue to make homestead cheese in defiance of any regulations.
"It’s hard to keep fighting all these years," Christine, who has been helping her sick father, said. "But we intend to keep making and selling cheese. I like the goats too much and there’s too much at stake."