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Consumer protests over a sting operation lead to a settlement permitting a Michigan farmer to continue distributing raw milk

Back in October, Michigan farmer Richard Hebron and Family Farms Co-op, which he manages, were the targets of a sting operation involving an undercover agent, about a dozen state police officers and agriculture inspectors, multiple search warrants, and confiscations of Hebron's and co-op members' property.

The trigger? Milk. The sting was the culmination of an investigation led by the Michigan Agriculture Dept.'s food and dairy division, which wanted to know whether Hebron had violated Michigan law by distributing raw milk (milk that isn't pasteurized or homogenized) and whether the co-op had broken the law by using a retail establishment's storage area as a milk drop-off point.

No arrests were made, but the co-op was crippled and participating farmers' livelihoods threatened, since the farmers' computer, fax, and business records were removed when the search warrants were served. And retail outlets in Illinois, where selling raw milk is legal, canceled orders (see, 10/19/06, "States Target Raw-Milk Farmers"). Michigan is only now returning the confiscated stuff (it was being held as evidence in case of a trial), minus the food, as part of the settlement signed Apr. 24.

Bombarded with E-Mails

Some 10 days after the bust, Steve Bemis, a member of Family Farms Co-op, fired off an e-mail to the head of the Michigan Agriculture Dept.'s food and dairy division. Bemis, a 60-year-old pension lawyer with Masco (MAS), stated in his letter that for he and his wife, "raw milk has been a central element in our improved health over the last year." He chided Katherine Fedder, the head of the food and dairy division, for "crude" tactics in the sting operation. "I'm comfortable in predicting that the resistance to this agency action will be stiff."

Bemis' prediction turned out to be accurate. Over the next six months, Michigan politicians were bombarded with e-mails and calls. Fedder won't say exactly how many letters she received, but the county prosecutor charged with considering whether to press criminal charges against the farmer received 232 testimonials from supporters of the farmer. (Most are posted on the co-op's Web site, About half, like Bemis in his original letter to the Michigan Agriculture Dept., testified to the health improvements they had experienced from consuming raw milk supplied by Richard Hebron—things like fewer colds and doctor visits and relief from chronic ailments such as asthma.

What Bemis didn't predict, though, was that he would become so deeply involved in the case that he would strike up an e-mail relationship with Fedder that would lead him to legally represent Hebron on a voluntary basis and help negotiate a settlement of the case that amounted to a huge victory for the farmer. "I had nothing but a layperson's knowledge" of agriculture and food legal issues, he says. Not only did the state agree not to press legal charges, it actually endorsed Hebron's right to distribute raw milk to members of the food cooperative under the cow-share agreements they had been using. His only penalty? A $1,000 administrative fine for violation of food-processing regulations affecting nonmilk items like chicken, beef, and eggs.

A Favorable Resolution

The case ended much more favorably for Hebron than it might have. In late March, Victor Fitz, the prosecutor for Cass County, where Hebron's farm is located, called all the parties in the case together, recalls Bemis. "He was your typical TV prosecutor—tall, steely-eyed, trim, brisk—a very tough cookie was the persona I met. He said, 'You guys better get an agreement together, or I'm going to prosecute.' …For whatever reason, it seemed they wanted to get Richard [Hebron] for a felony. He gave us three different statutes he was going to proceed on."

Fitz confirms Bemis' recollection of the events, though he notes that his encouragement of a resolution was directed as much at Fedder and the Michigan Agriculture Dept. as it was at Hebron. "He was not someone running into a bank with a gun doing something immediately dangerous to the public," says Fitz. "You've got two opposing parties, each with a good intention."

The department's original settlement offer proposed that Hebron be subject to various state regulations regarding products Hebron distributes besides raw milk, including poultry, eggs, beef, and pork—"redundant, over the top," is the way Bemis puts it. "We had to go over each issue."

Eventually, they settled on an agreement whereby Hebron needs "to come into compliance" on the facilities he uses for preparing and processing such products, according to Fedder. Hebron indicates he's already made arrangements via subcontractors to handle at least some of the issues Fedder is concerned about.

Reluctant Agreement

Ironically, the party most resistant to the settlement approach was Hebron. While he appreciates all the support he received from raw-milk consumers and people like Bemis, he fears that the Michigan Agriculture Dept. "wants to get me under their thumb with all these regulations." He's also still smarting from the department's search of his home during the sting. "I used to have faith in the government," he says. "Then when they stopped me the way they did and took my things and went into my house…I don't think anything is safe any more. Our house was always unlocked. Now, when we are gone, we lock it."

Bemis says he convinced Hebron to go along by detailing what a criminal trial might look like. "I told Richard that being in court isn't what you want to focus the next 12 months of your life doing," Bemis said.

While the Michigan component of the case is drawing to a close, the case isn't yet concluded. The federal Food & Drug Administration, which became involved in the case shortly after the Michigan sting operation, earlier this year issued a warning letter to the Indiana farmer, David Hochstetler, who actually supplies the raw milk that Hebron distributes to the cooperative. The FDA said Hochstetler was in violation of federal interstate commerce prohibitions on raw milk.

Bemis has become involved in that aspect of the case as well, helping Hochstetler draft a lengthy appeal to the FDA, arguing that the milk shipments don't constitute commerce, since they are being sent to Michigan participants in cow-share contracts, and not being sold commercially. The FDA hasn't yet responded to the appeal.

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