US crackdown on private association meat producers

By Brenda Dionisi

- Last updated on GMT

US crackdown on private association meat producers
A potentially precedent setting case in the US is being brought to a district court in Pennsylvania over the right to impose controls on a special kind of meat producer - a so-called “private membership association” farm business. These producers, who sell to a restricted group of consumers, have thus far operated beyond the reach of US federal food safety and quality regulations.

Earlier this month, the US Attorney’s Office filed a civil suit on behalf of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Department of Agriculture against Miller’s Organic Farm, located in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania, and its owner, Amos Miller, for continuing to sell non-federally-inspected meat and poultry products using unauthorised labelling and packaging to consumers located throughout the United States.

Amos Miller told GlobalMeatNews that his self-organised private membership association should be constitutionally protected under the US constitution’s first and 14th​ amendments (on free speech and the right to make a living), and as such, should be beyond the reach of federal food safety regulations.

In a previous civil suit brought against Miller’s farm by the FSIS in 2015, ‘United States v. Miller’s Organic Farm and Amos Miller, EDPA No. 16-cv-2731’, the court acknowledged that the farm and its members were an “expressive association,”​ and hence protected by the first amendment, Miller said.

In ‘Beta Upsilon Chi v. Machen, 559 F. Supp. 2d 1274 (Florida, 2008)’, expressive association was defined as “the right to associate for the purpose of engaging in those activities protected by the First Amendment: speech, assembly, petition for the redress of grievances, and the exercise of religion”​ (cited in Duhaime's Law Dictionary).

Miller’s farm does not sell its products to the general public but only to farm association members for a fee. Members sign a private membership agreement in which the farmer is not liable and in which members declare they are self-educated on “the efficacy, risks, and desirability”​ of the products sold, the agreement reads.

Miller said he wants to uphold members’ constitutional right to eat food produced outside of the existing regulatory system. “Our members have special needs and requests; they seek the nutrient density of grass-fed meats and grass-fed raw milk and dairy products. Many are sensitive to chemicals, which some sanitation laws require. And they like the idea of buying directly from the farm,”​ he explained.

However, the US District Attorney’s Office told GlobalMeatNews that “private membership association”​ farm businesses that sell meat and poultry in commerce cannot be exempt from federal controls: “The United States’ position is that if there are ‘commercial sales’ of meat and poultry, those meat and poultry products and sales are subject to FSIS regulation….regardless of whether a farm has organized as a ‘private membership association’ that sells only to its so-called ‘members’.”

As such, the FSIS will require “federal inspection”​ of its meat and poultry products before those products can be further commercially sold.

There are no state records on the number of private association farm businesses in the US, however they are rare, said Mark O’Neill, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

While he declined to comment directly on the suit, he did stress that some food safety regulations were necessary to protect public health: “We, as a farm organisation, believe that there are rules in place that are proper and right to ensure food safety.”

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