McGeary: Texas has better things to do than bust raw-milk users

Earlier this spring in Austin, a police car blocked a home’s driveway while government agents questioned people on the lawn. A mother broke down in tears while her children waited in the car.

During the Fourth of July weekend, in the Houston suburb of Katy, a sheriff’s deputy was called away from a domestic-dispute case to respond to non-urgent call.

These two busts at “pickup points” in Texas don’t involve drug smuggling or illegal firearms. No, law enforcement and health officials are “busting” families who are attempting to purchase milk.

In both cases, families had hired a courier to pick up milk from a licensed dairy that is regularly inspected and whose milk is tested and legal. But health agencies dispatched a combined 11 government agents, including police, to stop the couriers from bringing the milk to these families.

That’s because farm-fresh milk, often referred to as “raw milk,” must be sold only on the farm under Texas regulations. And officials with state and local health departments are twisting legal doctrines to claim that it is illegal to hire someone to pick it up for you, even if that person drives to the farm.

In Texas, you can buy raw oysters anywhere in the state, and you can order steak tartare at many restaurants. You can have meals delivered by UberEats or Favor. Groceries are delivered via Amazon and Instacart, including milk. But hire someone to pick up unprocessed milk from a farm, and it is considered a major problem by health authorities — one that apparently should involve police resources.

Consider these numbers: Since 1998, there have been more 15,000 foodborne illnesses in Texas that were traced to foods like pizza, peanut butter and celery. Roughly three-quarters of a million Texans drink raw milk, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention database. The total number of illnesses traced to raw milk in Texas in the last 18 years? Six.

So why such heavy-handed tactics to attack farmers and consumers? Just follow the money.

Texas’ dairy industry is controlled by three companies: Dairy Farmers of America Southeast, Dairy Farmers of America Southwest and Select Milk Producers. The demand for raw milk purchased from the farm poses a threat to their lock on the dairy market and their profits. The evidence lies in the money and lobbying power used to fight any expansion of consumer access to raw milk over the last three legislative sessions.

Officials with local health departments and the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) are targeting small farms using poorly worded, ambiguous regulations. In his email to the city of Austin, a DSHS staffer complained of “a rogue group of dairy farms” simply because these farms and their customers aren’t doing what the bureaucrats want them to do — nevermind that they’re complying with the law.

Current, overly broad DSHS regulations leave plenty of room for such abuse. The rules restricting raw milk sales to the farm could technically make it illegal to serve raw milk to a guest in your home. It would make it illegal to share a Community Supported Agriculture drop with your neighbors. And, if health departments are going to enforce the citation against the courier and the mother who organized the pickup — that they are allegedly operating an unlicensed retail food establishment — then these regulations should apply equally to UberEats and Instacart.

Those of us in the farming community understand that the courier arrangements complied with the regulations — if those regulations are interpreted rationally. The issue isn’t compliance; it’s that there is too much leeway for interpretation under such vague DSHS rules, and the agency staff are antagonistic to individuals seeking alternatives to the mainstream industrial food system.

DSHS must do better.

New regulations for a wide range of food businesses are scheduled to be formally proposed next month by DSHS. In response to the first draft, several groups, including the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, pointed out the new regulations are confusing and over-reaching; for example, the definition of which businesses are covered conflicts with a federal statute. It is incumbent upon our state’s health agency to draft regulations that are clear and understandable – to those who are subject to those regulations and to the government agents tasked with enforcing them.

The recent “milk busts” are dramatic examples of how overly broad regulations can create abuse, waste taxpayer dollars and make it nearly impossible to run a small farm in Texas.

Farmers should not have to fear police raids. Mothers should not be interrogated for buying healthy local foods for their families. Law enforcement should be tracking down real criminals.

Texas can do better.

McGeary is executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance.

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