The USDA inspectors arrived at Amos Miller’s farm on a Monday morning in July, court order in hand and local police by their side.
The order had been issued by a federal judge weeks earlier, giving the inspectors the right to enter Miller’s property despite his persistent objections.
Miller had first denied them access to his Bird-in-Hand plot in April, after a deadly listeria outbreak was traced there by health officials. The inspectors arrived on that Monday morning ready to review other aspects of his operation — namely the farm’s meat production facilities and paper records.
They have returned numerous times since, supporters of Miller’s claim.
The case, largely unnoticed outside of agriculture and “food choice” circles, is being celebrated within them, as Miller finds himself in the midst of a growing national debate about the extent of federal authority, the benefits of local and raw foods, and the struggle to assert individual choices in an age of mass consumption.
At issue is Miller’s claim that his ability to sell unregulated products to a group of witting customers is protected by the First Amendment. Miller is not a licensed producer, and for some of his clients that is the appeal. He has also called the scrutiny placed upon him by federal officials a violation of his constitutional rights.
And this is where his story takes a turn, from the not-so-unusual teeth-sucking aimed at dogged regulators to a constitutional argument, and entwined movement, aimed at upending a stratum of government and changing the face of agriculture as we know it.
“They want to control the food supply,” Miller told PennLive recently by phone, inferring the motives of his federal inspectors.
“And they’re taking our freedoms away.”
Behind him a fringe but sizable segment of the American food chain nods in agreement, and watches closely to see what might happen next.
‘Finally in their grasp’
Beyond the supermarket shelves, beyond the hands that stock them and the highway systems that feed them, are the food producers themselves. They range in size and scale, specialty and method, but almost all have been forced to adjust to the changing tastes and expectations of contemporary consumers — for better and worse.
In the last half-century, mostly, technological advancements have rendered pests and blight controllable, weather more predictable and farming methods more efficient. They have also helped create the most food secure and food affordable nation in history.
But for almost as long, there have been questions about the long-term consequences of these processes on the environment and consumer health, as well as the effectiveness of government regulators there to ensure either.
Enter the food choice movement, one advocating for shorter supply chains and smaller scale production, as well as an individual’s right to eat food produced outside of the existing regulatory system.
In Miller’s case, this includes raw dairy products for which he is not a licensed producer, but of which he continues to supply a nationwide network of private club members.
It was raw milk produced at “Miller’s Organic Farm,” that was blamed for the death of a Florida woman in 2014, as well as a California consumer’s illness that same year.
Miller claims the milk was never tested and that the deceased had pre-existing health conditions that may have contributed to or caused her death instead. CDC officials detail a summary of their investigation here.
And while Miller’s farm and business have not been halted by the authorities, even after the Litseriosis outbreak, he says that’s not for lack of trying: Government agents reportedly returned to his farm on at least 5 occasions between July 11 and August 2, or roughly twice a week. Officials refused to comment on the probe, nor did they comment on its findings or scope when reached by PennLive.
Prior to the court order, Miller consistently refused to cooperate with those same officials: Denying them access to his land, airing his criticisms publicly at times, and maintaining that his constitutional rights have been violated here by agencies intent on controlling, not improving, the nation’s food supply.
“Remember, the regulators have had Miller in their sights for years,” writes David Gumpert, a raw milk advocate and author of The Complete Patient blog.
And, he added, they’re not “about to let [him] off easily, now that they finally have him in their grasp.”
‘More harm to American citizens than good’
After Miller denied the USDA inspectors access to his farm in April, they took him to court. They wanted to see his facilities and records, and with the judge’s order in hand on July 11 they arrived to do just that.
In the end, Miller said, the judge granted the USDA’s request, but not without a caveat: “The judge said this was an ‘expressive association’ and that the USDA is not supposed to interfere with that.”
The premise of Miller’s entire case and potentially the future of his business rests upon those two words.
Miller claims the U.S. Constitution’s “expressive association” clause protects his members-only business, in which subscribers receive raw dairy products and meats from his organic farm in exchange for a fee.
The clause — famously invoked by the Boy Scouts of America in their defense of a ban on homosexual leaders — protects the rights of citizens to “associate” or form associations for the purpose of exercising First Amendment protections. These include the right to free speech, petition for the redress of grievances and the exercise of religion.
Miller believes a philosophy shared among his club’s members — one that is both anti-food safety regulation and anti-government, as well as pro-raw foods and pro-food choice — affords them the same ideological and organizational protections under the law.
In court documents filed last month opposing USDA attempts to inspect his farm, Miller said his members “mistrust the status of the regulatory framework of the federal government and believe that said framework causes more harm to American citizens than good.”
A contract signed by members adds, “We proclaim the freedom to choose and decide for ourselves the types of products, services, and methods that we think best for healthy eating and preventing illness and disease of our minds and bodies and for achieving and maintaining optimum wellness.”
For Miller and those both inside of his “association” and outside of it, the question is this: Should people have a right to eat what they want, even if the federal government disagrees with their choices? And, if so, should they also have the right to shun that government’s influence and the same regulations and requirements in place for everyone else?
Experts say the answer is uncertain.
M. Sean High, a staff attorney with the Penn State Center for Agricultural and Shale Law, is familiar with Miller’s case.
And while he acknowledges the “expressive association” argument is a novel one, at least in this context, he’s also skeptical that any legal argument will enable Miller to rid himself of at least some measure of regulatory oversight going forward.
“No matter where you’re at in Pennsylvania, every butcher’s shop is regulated by the federal government,” High said, adding that while some facilities get exemptions from certain regulations, “they still have to keep records and still have to get inspected.”
According to U.S. law, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture has the power to regulate and inspect any meat and poultry products that are intended for human consumption and that are prepared for distribution in interstate commerce. This includes Miller, but also hasn’t stopped him from flouting the rules and defying the government’s authority.
Asked if Miller was the first farmer he knew of to challenge this kind of oversight, High said hardly. Instead, he said it’s Miller’s cloaking of his operation in the expressive association clause that’s unique.
“You always have people who don’t want to be regulated,” he explained.
‘They’re taking our freedoms away’
In recent weeks, Miller’s case has been drawn back into an Allentown-area federal court, where he’s now facing a contempt of court hearing after refusing to provide records for his raw foods business, or club, to those inspectors granted access by the court back in June. A final date for the hearing has yet to be set, however.
According to court filings, Miller’s reason for refusing to turn over the records and sales receipts in question is their inclusion of personal information belonging to his clients or club members, information he says he’s not comfortable revealing.
He has also appealed the court’s initial decision to grant inspectors access to his farm. A decision on the appeal has yet to be rendered, but if favorable to him could nullify the need for a contempt ruling anyway.
In the meantime, his case continues to draw attention in food choice circles, often in the form of supportive blog posts that celebrate Miller’s stand against agencies viewed as hostile to the movement.
His case follows two others with nearly identical circumstances but differing results that wound their way through the court systems of Maine and Wisconsin in recent years.
In the first, farmer Dan Brown of Blue Hill, Me., challenged a $1,000 fine levied by the state in 2011 for his selling of raw milk without a license. Brown appealed the fine with the state’s highest court, but ultimately lost his three-year legal battle.
In Wisconsin, farmer Vernon Hershberger was criminally charged and facing jail time for four counts related to his sale of unlicensed raw milk. He was ultimately acquitted on three of the four charges against him, in what many in raw milk and food choice circles saw as a victory for the movement. Hershberger later appealed his conviction on the single count and lost.
Still, the likely outcome of Miller’s case remains unclear. And for now, the court proceedings involved relate only to his meat and poultry production, not his production or sale of raw milk.
This as health officials continue to warn against the dangers of consuming raw milk and related products, such as soft cheese, ice cream, and yogurt, because the milk has not undergone a process called pasteurization that kills disease-causing germs, such as Campylobacter, E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella.
Raw milk also remains outlawed in 20 states.
While Pennsylvania is not one of them, production here requires a license, one Miller lacks.
He also supplies club members in other states, including Florida where sales of raw milk are barred by law and where federal officials say a woman died after drinking raw chocolate milk from Miller’s farm in 2014. That interstate distribution detail could also complicate his status, legally speaking.
But Miller remains resolute, and as a member of Lancaster County’s large Plain Sect population, somewhat uncomfortable with all the outside attention.
In speaking with PennLive in July, he said he plans to continue challenging the government, casting it less as a matter of commerce and regulatory burden than of personal liberty. Many of his customers, or club members, are certain to agree, believing raw foods and raw milk to be more nutrient dense than the alternatives.
“Our private members want something that’s not available on the public store shelves,” he said, adding “We don’t want to be against the government. We’re just concerned they’re taking our freedoms away.”