Miller’s Organic Farm is not having a good year.
In March, it was associated with a raw milk Listeria outbreak involving one fatality. A judge then approved USDA’s request to inspect the farm, which led to requests for sales records. Now, Amish owner Amos Miller has been ordered back to court on Nov. 1 where he could be found in contempt for his failure to produce documents as requested for USDA’a Food Safety and Inspection Service.
For Miller, however, a more troubling concern is likely USDA’s expansion of its investigation to include 1,100 members of a North Carolina food buying club that is associated with his Pennsylvania farm.
Author-activist David Gumpert, who follows the alternative food movement reported the change up in targets on his “Complete Patient” blog after USDA got some customer information Thursday.
Gumpert called the unusual move “an ominous turn” for Miller’s confrontation with the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Miller has declined to provide customer records on his own. USDA’s investigation has also expanded to include Miller’s organic program because his farm has apparently never been certified as organic.
Transcontinental outbreak of Listeriosis
Miller’s current problems began March 15 when the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Miller’s Organic Farm in Bird-in-Hand, PA, was “the likely source” of an outbreak involving two people. One victim lived in California and the other in Florida. Both were hospitalized in 2014 with infections from Listeria monocytogenes. The Florida resident died.
The CDC and state and local public health investigators used the PulseNet system to connect the illnesses back to Miller’s Organic Farm. PulseNet performs DNA fingerprinting on pathogens such as Listeria bacteria samples from ill people by using both pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) and whole genome sequencing (WGS).
“In November 2015, samples of raw chocolate milk were collected from a raw milk conference held in Anaheim, CA,” CDC reported. “The raw chocolate milk was produced by Miller’s Organic Farm. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) isolated Listeria from the raw chocolate milk and conducted WGS testing on the isolate to get more genetic information about the bacteria.”
On Jan. 29 this year FDA informed CDC that WGS analysis showed the Listeria bacteria from the raw chocolate milk was “closely related genetically” to Listeria bacteria from the California and Florida patients.
The raw milk conference mentioned in the CDC report was sponsored by the Weston A. Price Foundation, which promotes drinking milk that has not ben pasteurized, commonly known as raw milk.
Federal judge orders inspection
After the CDC issued its report, Miller would not grant permission to USDA personnel to inspect the farm. For more than three months after a subpoena duces tecum was issued under the authority of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Miller blocked USDA officials from his farm.
That landed him in federal court in early summer, where he failed to show any cause as to why he should not produce the information summoned by the Secretary of Agriculture nor why he should not provide access to the farm.
A federal judge ordered him to do so, commencing July 11. An FSIS inspector arrived at the farm on that date in the company of armed law enforcement officers and Miller granted them access, but declined to produce documents as ordered by the court.
Or as Gumpert puts it: “Those ‘inspections’ over the summer turned into demands for members’ food purchase records, which Miller declined to provide, citing contractual requirements that he keep member information private.”
The sales structure
Miller’s Organic Farm uses “buying clubs” and cooperatives to sell a lengthy list of food products across much of the country. In March, apparently well after USDA figured out Miller’s was operating outside the bounds of the USDA organic program, a subpoena was issued to a North Carolina buying club through a technically savvy member. USDA sought customer and sales records from the 1,100-member group going back to 2012.
The target of the subpoena, club member Jacob Williams, last week agreed to give up 2,600 pages of records going back to 2015 with redacted customer names and locations in order to avoid being himself found in contempt of court.
USDA’s organic program objected to Miller’s “Organic” Farm in 2013, which it repeated the following two years. Miller, who says none of his farms are labeled as “organic,” respond to USDA by asking for an administrative hearing over his using “organic” in his farm’s name. USDA apparently did not respond to those requests. Without conducting an administrative hearing, they could not proceed further against Miller.
Miller says he does not advertise “organic” and should be able to use the word in a private name.
USDA officials turned to Williams when they could not get Miller to cooperate. Unless the USDA takes some action sooner, the next action in the saga will come in federal court in Pennsylvania.
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