- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 28, 2011

A yearlong sting operation, including aliases, a 5 a.m. surprise inspection and surreptitious purchases from an Amish farm in Pennsylvania, culminated in the federal government announcing this week that it has gone to court to stop Rainbow Acres Farm from selling its contraband to willing customers in the Washington area.

The product in question: unpasteurized milk.

It’s a battle that’s been going on behind the scenes for years, with natural foods advocates arguing that raw milk, as it’s also known, is healthier than the pasteurized product, while the Food and Drug Administration says raw milk can carry harmful bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria.

“It is the FDA’s position that raw milk should never be consumed,” said Tamara N. Ward, spokeswoman for the FDA, whose investigators have been looking into Rainbow Acres for months, and who finally last week filed a 10-page complaint in federal court in Pennsylvania seeking an order to stop the farm from shipping across state lines any more raw milk or dairy products made from it.

The farm’s owner, Dan Allgyer, didn’t respond to a message seeking comment, but his customers in the District of Columbia and Maryland were furious at what they said was government overreach.

“I look at this as the FDA is in cahoots with the large milk producers,” said Karin Edgett, a D.C. resident who buys directly from Rainbow Acres. “I don’t want the FDA and my tax dollars to go to shut down a farm that hasn’t had any complaints against it. They’re producing good food, and the consumers are extremely happy with it.”

The FDA’s actions stand in contrast to other areas where the Obama administration has said it will take a hands-off approach to violations of the law, including the use of medical marijuana in states that have approved it, and illegal-immigrant students and youths, whom the administration said recently will not be targets of their enforcement efforts.

Raw-milk devotees say pasteurization, the process of heating food to kill harmful organisms, eliminates good bacteria as well, and changes the taste and health benefits of the milk. Many raw-milk drinkers say they feel much healthier after changing over to it, and insist they should have the freedom of choice regarding their food.

One defense group says there are as many as 10 million raw-milk consumers in the country. Sales are perfectly legal in 10 states but illegal in 11 states and the District, with the other states having varying restrictions on purchase or consumption.

Many food safety researchers say pasteurization, which became widespread in the 1920s and 1930s, dramatically reduced instances of milk-transmitted diseases such as typhoid fever and diphtheria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no health benefit from raw milk that cannot be obtained from pasteurized milk.

Acting on those conclusions, the FDA uses its regulatory powers over food safety to ban interstate sales of raw milk and has warned several farms to change their practices.

According to the complaint the FDA filed in court, the agency began to look into Mr. Allgyer’s farm in late 2009, when an investigator in their Baltimore office used aliases to sign up for a Yahoo user group for Rainbow Acres‘ customers, and began to place orders under the assumed names for unpasteurized milk.

The orders were delivered to private residences in Maryland, where the investigator, whose name was not disclosed in the documents, would pick them up. By crossing state lines the milk became part of interstate commerce, thus subject to the FDA’s ban on interstate sales of raw milk. The court papers note that the jugs of milk were not labeled - another violation of FDA regulations.

Armed with that information, investigators visited the farm in February 2010, but Mr. Allgyer turned them away. They returned two months later with a warrant, U.S. marshals and a state police trooper, arriving at 5 a.m. for what Mr. Allgyer’s backers called a “raid,” but the FDA said was a lawful inspection.

The investigators said they saw coolers labeled with Maryland town names, and the coolers appeared to contain dairy products. The inspection led to an April 20, 2010, letter from FDA telling Mr. Allgyer to stop selling across state lines.

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