An Oregon raw milk farmer who was fined for posting raw milk prices online is suing the state.
Last year Christine Anderson made the mistake of listing the price she charges for raw milk on her website. Even though it is legal for Anderson to sell raw milk from her Cast Iron Farm, it is illegal for her to mention the fact on her website or in an email. Under state law she can sell the milk; she just can’t advertise it. Anderson learned that when an inspector from the state Department of Agriculture cited her.
“Raw milk is legal to sell but you can’t talk about it,” Anderson complained to The Oregonian newspaper. Oregon, which is thought of as an open state and a home for free spirits, allows dairies to sell raw milk directly to consumers. Yet it doesn’t permit the farmers to advertise the sale.
Suing for Free Speech
Attorneys from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian legal group, have sued the state of Oregon on Anderson’s behalf. The Institute contends that the Oregon law violates the First Amendment right to free speech.
The Institute listed some of the practical effects of the law in a press release. These effects include:
- Farmers cannot put up a sign by the side of the road that they are selling raw milk. The law subjects violators to a fine of $6,250 and civil penalties of up to $10,000.
- Private individuals who believe in the benefits of raw milk are not allowed to talk about it or promote it.
Promoters of raw milk believe it is more nutritious and safe for the lactose intolerant to drink. Public health officials have long discouraged the consumption of unpasteurized or “raw” milk because they say it is more likely to be contaminated with bacteria.
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Most milk sold in stores in the United States is pasteurized. Raw milk advocates believe that pasteurization destroys some of the health benefits of milk.
A Responsible Farmer
Anderson is a responsible farmer who checks her milk for harmful bacteria every month.
“Raw milk does contain the ability to make somebody sick,” Anderson said. “I don’t want to debate the safety of it.”
Instead, she simply wants the ability to be able to tell potential customers that she is selling a product. Many other food products that have potentially harmful side-effects are advertised every day. Sushi potentially contains bacteria yet Oregon allows sushi restaurants to operate and advertise it.
Oregon isn’t the only state where raw milk is controversial. Dairy farmers in Pennsylvania have accused that state’s Department of Agriculture of making false claims about raw milk. Minnesota dairy farmer Alvin Schlangen has been prosecuted for selling raw milk through a food club on at least two occasions.
Small Scale Food Production’s Challenge
Anderson’s dilemma highlights the challenges faced by small scale farmers and food producers. Even though Oregon law seems to encourage small scale dairy production by letting a farm with up to three cows or nine goats sell raw milk without state inspection, it bars advertising.
Minnesota baker Jane Astramecki ran afoul of a similar law. State law limits her to making just $5,000 a year or $96 by baking at home. That limits Astramecki’s business and prevents her from taking lucrative catering jobs. If she wanted to do more than $5,000 a year in baking, Astramecki would have to go to the expense of buying a bakery.
The Institute for Justice has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Astramecki and another home baker, Mara Heck. The Institute also objects to a provision in law that prevents cottage food producers like Heck from selling at any place besides farmer’s markets. It prevents her from selling online, through gourmet shops or to coworkers.
The Institute has launched a national Food Freedom Initiative on behalf of organic farmers, gardeners and small scale food producers. The idea is to eliminate ridiculous regulations that limit small-scale food production but don’t enhance public safety.