In The Field

Imagine a time when food distribution is so tightly regulated that you must go underground to get the meat and dairy products you want. You use code words to describe them and find out from trusted friends and neighbors where you can obtain your goods from a secret location. You may be shut out if you seem suspicious. Sounds like something from Prohibition? This is the process that many people use today to get raw milk or meats from local farmers.

It sounds innocuous enough: You want to eat local, support small family farms, and consume products from animals that have been raised without hormones and antibiotics, and slaughtered away from the horrific conditions of typical slaughterhouses. But your seller doesn’t have a license to distribute the dairy or meat, and they haven’t taken the animal to a federally-inspected slaughterhouse. The meat isn’t USDA-approved, and the milk has not been tested for pathogens. The USDA says you are playing Russian Roulette with your health, and if the farmer gets busted, he could be charged with a felony, serve jail time, and be required to pay huge fines. Why take the risk?

“People want the health benefits, and they want to know where their food comes from, how the animals were raised, and what they ate, especially in light of the recent tainted meat scares,” says “Melanie,” who illegally distributes raw milk and meat out of the back of her Northern California store, some from animals she’s raised on her small farm. “People also want to buy local and keep commerce in the neighborhood,” she continues.

Melanie is part of a growing milk and meat black market. These renegades hope to shift food production towards local farmers, and away from unsafe and unclean large-scale factory farms that ship meat across state—and national—borders. “I come by this honestly and am interested in honest food production,” Melanie says. “I’m starting at the bottom, close to home, to change the food model.”

Melanie raises beef, pork, lamb, and the occasional chicken on her hundred or so acres. Currently she has about ten cows and twenty sheep, either born on her property or bought from other people she knows who raise animals in the same manner she would. “Essentially, I raise them with no intervention except for feeding them good and being nice to them,” she says. “They don’t need blankets and pillows, but I keep things clean and give them a varied diet.” She believes that she is participating in the animal’s entire lifecycle, from birth to death.

Melanie kills the chickens herself, but she takes her other animals to a nearby, non-USDA-inspected facility to be slaughtered. (Her closest USDA-approved facility is a four-hour drive, round-trip.) “He has a really nice place and he does a good job,” she says of her butcher, who processes, wraps, and returns the meat to her for around the same price as the USDA-approved facility. “If I had a nice facility at my place I’d rather do it myself, but I don’t know how to butcher,” she says.

She uses all parts of the animal, a practice she wishes more people would adopt. “People are out of the habit of using all the weird bits, like organ meats,” Melanie says. “They want the T-bone and the easy parts. We need to get back into the habit of using all of it.” She says that some people buy organ meats to eat, but most often, she sells those parts to people to use for pet food.

I ask how she fell into black market distribution. After acquiring some goats and using their milk herself—“long enough ago that no one was even into the raw milk thing,” she says—Melanie saved an older dairy cow from slaughter and started getting several gallons from her daily. “I began telling people, ‘I got more than I need, and you got some money,’ and that’s how we got started,” she says. “Plus, I grew up as a vegetarian and when I decided to eat meat, I decided it would be local, and I wanted to know exactly where it came from.” Recently she began selling meat from the animals she raises on her farm, and she also sells raw goat’s milk for an area farmer who drops it off at her storefront.

Melanie says that legalizing her meat and milk sales would be onerous. Although her farm is small, she is required to adhere to the same laws as industrial farms; she says the process to obtain licensing is “lengthy and complicated.” After getting her license, her farm would need to undergo routine inspections, and she’d have to use the USDA-inspected slaughterhouse.

Selling raw milk is even more difficult.  Raw milk distribution is legal in California and 25 other states, but there is no federal standard for raw milk, so each state handles its distribution differently. In California, it must undergo rigorous testing to adhere to more stringent standards than pasteurized milk must meet, and the products require warning labels. Conventional milk suppliers use the pasteurization process to kill pathogens, so there is no requirement to test batches before they are released. Raw milk, on the other hand, must be tested for pathogens at several different steps before it can be sold.

According to Melanie, it’s not worth the hassle for a smaller producer, and she says meeting the required standards is purposely difficult, to discourage small farmers from distribution. “It’s just too hard,” she says. “It’s way more difficult than meat, with more rules and more inspections. You must constantly test the milk.”

In states where raw milk is illegal, or for distributors who do not have the means to meet the stringent requirements, raw milk is often sold with a “pet food only” label, even though consumers purchase it for human use. Select Whole Foods Market stores carry such products, but in early October, sixteen Whole Foods stores in Florida decided to pull their raw milk “pet food” from shelves.

Raw milk is touted for its health benefits, mainly its immunoglobulins and beneficial bacteria that bolster the immune system, and because it contains lactase, an enzyme that helps people digest milk. Some people experience allergies or difficulty digesting pasteurized milk because the heat used in this process destroys lactase.

Melanie feels that the meat she sells has its own health benefits; she believes that the butcher she deals with poses less of a contamination risk than larger-scale slaughter facilities, and she says her own farm is much cleaner than industrial feedlots. According to a recent New York Times article, so far in 2009, almost half a million pounds of E. coli-infected ground beef have been recalled nationwide, and a single hamburger can include various grades of meat from hundreds of different cows—even from different slaughterhouses. Amazingly, there is no federal requirement for meat grinders to test their beef for pathogens.

To add to confusion, meat labeling can be misleading. “Organic” does not imply humane slaughter, and “grass-fed” does not mean the animal was not also given hormones or antibiotics. Use of these two terms is USDA regulated and sometimes third party–approved, meaning audits from animal welfare or food safety manufacturing organizations take place in the slaughter or processing facility. “Free-range” applies only to poultry and is more of a marketing claim; there is no enforcement from the USDA or other agencies.

“It is surprising how little inspection there is when you take an animal to be [legally] slaughtered,” Melanie says. “When you take it to slaughter, they don’t ask you how you raised that animal, what meds you gave it, how you fed it, anything.” She believes that her slaughtering process is more humane; she says after bringing her animals to her black market butcher, he will let the animals sit on his lot for a day or two to calm down after transport, a practice she says results in better-tasting meat. “If the animal is less traumatized the meat comes out better,” she says.

Word is spreading about Melanie, and so is demand. But she is truly afraid about being caught. “You can really get in a lot of trouble,” she says. When I press her for details, she replies, “I’ve heard of people losing a lot and being fined a lot but I’ve pretty much tried to stay out of it and not ask. I don’t even want to know.”

Indeed, the California Department of Food & Agriculture (CDFA), which inspects meat and produce and regulates farm safety and management practices, is serious about halting illegal sales. Steve Lyle, the agency’s director of public affairs, says that state and federal laws “provide food safety for consumers. While both milk and meat have substantial nutritional benefits, if not handled properly, they also can be easily contaminated.”

Pathogens that cause food-borne illness may contaminate meat or milk that is improperly handled (not wrapped tightly enough, for example), or stored at temperatures that are warm enough for bacteria to proliferate. The most common are Salmonella and Campylobacter, which can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

“Illegal meat and milk processing has led to serious illness and even death,” Lyle continues. “That is why the handling of these particular food products is carefully regulated.” Salmonella causes about 550 deaths per year in the US.

Lyle says that CDFA investigators make an average of two arrests or prosecutions per month across the state, typically for the unlicensed manufacture or sale of raw milk products, including cheeses. “Manufacturing or processing for resale of any milk or milk product in a facility not licensed by CDFA is technically a felony,” he says. Can you get in trouble for buying the products? “We usually focus on unlicensed sellers, and strive to educate consumers,” says Lyle. Regulation at the county level may be more lax—the environmental health department worker I spoke to says his department rarely makes arrests for unlawful meat or milk distribution. Then again, he says, because the offense is considered so serious, most cases are handled directly by the CDFA.

To date, there are only two legal raw dairy producers in California: Organic Pastures, near Fresno, and Claravale Farm in Panoche. Organic Pastures sells raw dairy products from pasture-raised cows. On this 500-acre farm, no environmentally unfriendly pesticides are used, and its 350 cows are not fed hormones, antibiotics, or soy. Pasture-raising cattle is considered more beneficial for the cow, the milk, and the environment—unlike conventional dairies, there is no accumulation of manure in a concentrated area, lessening runoff and pollution.

Organic Pastures CEO Mark McAfee explains that because of California state standards for legal raw milk, he must “go the extra marathon” to test every step of the way to show that his milk is free from bacteria and pathogens. “Our protocols are pretty intense here,” says McAfee. “A lot of testing and cleaning. We can’t be sloppy. It’s not the bacteria coming off or out of the cow that is the concern; it’s how the milk is handled after it’s been milked.”

McAfee says that because raw milk is a live food that contains beneficial bacteria, it does not putrefy; rather, its cultures ferment into another usable form such as kefir or sour cream. With pasteurized milk, beneficial cultures have been killed during the heating process, but it contains spoilage bacteria that render it unusable after its expiration date.

All the testing is worth it for the relationship his dairy has with its customers, McAfee says. “We want to be an example,” he says. “If you look at our food chain that we have here, there is a very intimate relationship with our consumer. There is no one between the consumer and myself, and they visit us directly. Other dairies do not know their consumers. They get paid poorly, and the consumers get poor nutrition. We get paid very well, and our consumers get incredible nutrition from a short food chain.”

But in many areas, it can be hard for consumers to find legal raw milk or local meat-sellers who have complied with the USDA’s rules. To circumvent food regulations—or a retail middleman like Melanie—some consumers are chipping in to collectively buy an animal, paying a farmer for its care and upkeep, and divvying up the milk, organs, meat, and other byproducts. (There is no law against using raw milk or meat from an animal you own.) Depending on the county or municipality, you can keep chickens or even goats in your backyard, a practice that is growing in popularity. “You’re lucky if you live somewhere where you can raise animals in your backyard, but you can’t do that everywhere,” Melanie points out.

Meanwhile, the black market provides a compelling alternative for Melanie’s customers, although she admits she is considering going legit. “With a little more effort I could probably be totally legal, but I’m just lazy,” she says. “I need an inspected freezer and a clean, tidy little section, but everything would have to go [to the USDA-inspected facility] to be slaughtered, which takes forever.” For now, she is flying under the radar, and business is booming.

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