Earlier this week, Rep. Thomas Massie (R–Ky.) introduced an important set of bills that would loosen slightly the FDA's stranglehold on the interstate shipment and sale of raw milk. In another welcome development, Massie said he intends to introduce other "food freedom"-themed bills later this year.
Rep. Massie, a farmer who raises and markets grass-fed beef, was joined in sponsoring the bills by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D–Maine) and a total of eighteen other House members from both sides of the aisle.
According to a release put out this week by Rep. Massie's office, the bills—the "Milk Freedom of Act" and the "Interstate Milk Freedom Act"—are intended "to improve consumer food choices and to protect local farmers from federal interference."
The bills would prohibit the federal government from interfering with the interstate traffic of raw milk or its sale between farmers and consumers in "states where distribution or sale of such products is already legal."
The reasons behind the FDA's ban in the sale or shipment of raw milk in interstate commerce are interesting, if not widely known.
As I detailed in a 2012 column, the FDA's ban is a relatively new phenomenon. "[I]t wasn't until 1987 that FDA regulations mandated that unpasteurized milk could no longer be sold across state lines. The agency had successfully bucked pressure to implement such a ban but was forced to do so thanks to a federal judge's 1986 ruling in a lawsuit launched by Public Citizen, the group founded by Ralph Nader. Without that lawsuit, it's at least debatable whether a federal ban would be in place today."
As Rep. Massie told me when I spoke with him by phone this week, the raw milk ban is a case of a court stepping in to demand an administrative agency (here, the FDA) take action where Congress has not acted.
"Here you have essentially a law that's on the books that came out of the judicial and administrative branch, and never came through the legislative branch," Massie told me from his Kentucky farm. "I'm trying to remedy that situation."
"What good purpose does it serve for the federal government to prosecute someone for taking food from one state where it's legal to another state where it's legal," Massie asked rhetorically of current FDA policy.
Advocates for increased access to raw milk—me included—support Rep. Massie's bills while also recognizing that their passage would be the first of many necessary steps.
In a release issued by Rep. Massie's office this week, the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund's Pete Kennedy congratulates the congressman for introducing the bill, while also recognizing that the bills' chief benefit is "starting the process" toward greater access for farmers and consumers alike.
That process would be lengthy. One thing these bills would not do, for example, is provide relief to farmers and consumers in states where raw milk is tightly regulated or plainly illegal.
Sadly, this week brought for me a reminder of how such farmers continue to struggle against overly burdensome regulations.
I first became acquainted with Steve, an Illinois farmer who asked that I not use his last name for this column, by email last year. Steve, who was selling raw milk from his farm direct to consumers, wrote to tell me about an onerous Illinois bill that would have required small farmers like him to obtain a permit, which would require at least $20,000 capital investment to obtain, and to curtail sales to no more than 100 gallons per week. That would have been effectively the end of raw milk in Illinois.
Steve told me at the time that the regulatory miasma had him thinking about selling off his dairy cattle.
"I hope you're able to remain exactly where you are," I wrote to him last March, "doing exactly what you want to do."
Steve and I exchanged emails several times since.
Sadly, I learned from Steve this week that Illinois's rules were just too complex and pervasive an obstacle for him to succeed. Steve sold his dairy cows.
"The state restricts marketing/advertising, access to markets, bottling, delivery and processing of any kind," he writes. "Proposed new restrictions are limits on production and sales while increasing licensing, warnings and equipment requirements."
"The state's already tight restrictions made sales off the farm impossible and caused great waste with dumping unsold milk that could have been made into cheese or butter for later sale," Steve told me. "With further restrictions planned I did not see any way to grow this business in Illinois."
Can what's happening in Washington, D.C. help small dairy farmers like Steve elsewhere around the country? There may be a sliver of hope.
In his conversation with me, Rep. Massie noted his bills have gained support and sponsors among both Democrats and Republicans.
"I think it's not really liberal or conservative—the notion that you should be able to eat what you want to eat," says Massie, distilling the message in these bills that appeals to members of both parties.
"You should be able to control what goes into your own body," he says. "You should be able to control what your family eats."
"It's a great issue because it's about freedom," says Massie.
If people can agree on those principles across party lines, then there may be hope for us after all.