Alvin Schlangen believes strongly in his right to deliver raw milk products to consumers who want them -- so strongly that he still hasn't stopped despite facing criminal charges in two counties.
The Freeport farmer's jury trial is scheduled to begin Monday in Minneapolis in Hennepin County District Court, where he is charged with violating Minnesota's food safety code. Schlangen's legal case has become a flashpoint for raw milk advocates, grassroots groups opposed to corporate agriculture and libertarians who see it as government interference with consumers' right to choose what they eat.
"We have a bureaucracy that's intent for whatever reason on making sure people aren't able to get raw milk," said Nathan Hansen, Schlangen's attorney.
The 54-year-old Schlangen is an organic egg farmer who doesn't actually produce milk. He operates a private club called Freedom Farms Co-op with roughly 130 members who sign a contract to purchase farm products, including raw milk. Schlangen picks up the products from an Amish farm and delivers them to consumers, mainly in the Twin Cities.
Raw milk is unpasteurized, meaning it hasn't been heat-treated to kill pathogens. Under Minnesota law, it can only be sold directly to consumers on the farm where it's produced. Advocates of raw milk say it's easier to digest and contains beneficial enzymes pasteurization destroys. But most public health experts dispute that.
Raw milk can contain harmful bacteria that pose health risks, including: E. coli, salmonella, listeria and campylobacter, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Minnesota Department of Agriculture spokesman Michael Schommer said he can't comment specifically on Schlangen's case because it's ongoing. In a written statement, Schommer said a key element of the department's mission is protecting the integrity of the food supply, which "allows people to have confidence that the food they purchase is safe.
"We cannot arbitrarily choose certain business models or product categories to be exempt from basic food safety and sanitary requirements," Schommer stated.
Schlangen is charged in Hennepin County with four misdemeanors, including selling unpasteurized milk products or possessing them for sale.
According to the criminal complaint, in March 2011 inspectors searched a Minneapolis warehouse leased by Schlangen, where they found unpasteurized milk and other foods. They also found receipts from sales Schlangen had made to customers although he didn't have a license to sell, handle or store food.
Each count carries a penalty of up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Schlangen said he knew criminal charges were a possibility but is surprised that the government is pursuing the case against a small farmer who isn't producing milk.
"I didn't think this small farmer with an egg production unit would get in trouble for carrying my neighbor's food on a truck," he said. Schlangen argues that he's doing nothing wrong, because the members of his co-op lease the animals that provide the raw milk, so there's no purchase or sale.
He said his club is a new design of a food system that "allows the consumer ... to be involved in the quality of the food they're getting, and not just settle for what's there on the shelf."
Schlangen also faces six misdemeanors in Stearns County stemming from a June 2010 inspection of his Freeport farm, including keeping products at an improper temperature.
Assistant Stearns County Attorney William MacPhail said his case against Schlangen is more about general food safety than whether the milk is pasteurized.
"The concern here is, whether it's eggs or milk or whatever kind of food, is that Minnesota law requires everybody -- including Alvin -- to properly refrigerate it," MacPhail said.
Schlangen has the legal right to sell foods from his own farm, but he doesn't produce the milk, salmon, grapefruit, bison or some of the other products he had, MacPhail said. Schlangen has repeatedly refused to get a food handler's license, MacPhail said.
Supporters are planning a rally in support of Schlangen for 9 a.m. Monday at the Hennepin County Government Center. One of the scheduled speakers, Liz Reitzig, co-founder of the Farm Food Freedom Coalition, said people on both sides of the issue are watching the case closely.
Schlangen is getting legal help from the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, an advocacy group that has challenged state and federal laws regulating raw milk.
"You're talking about someone who's never been accused of making anyone sick," said attorney Peter Kennedy, president of the legal defense fund. The members of Schlangen's club arranged for him to deliver food to them, Kennedy said.
"They're happy with what he does for them, and yet the state is trying to get in the way of this private, contractual relationship between Alvin and the members of the food club," Kennedy said. "It doesn't really seem like they're protecting the public health and safety."
While Minnesota law allows consumers to purchase raw milk directly on the farm, that's not practical for most people, especially Twin Cities residents who live 50 to 100 miles away, Kennedy said.
"It has the effect of limiting consumer access and hurting the farmers' bottom line," he said. Despite the possibility of jail time and a hefty fine, Schlangen said he won't stop delivering the raw milk products.
"I can't stop doing something that I completely believe in," he said. " ... Unless I'm in jail, I have no reason to stop connecting these families with their food."
Source: Kirsti Marohn, St. Cloud Times, MN