Hendricks Farm and Dairy (HFD) is a grass-based organic raw milk dairy in Telford. The dairy boasts a state-of-the-art facility and has an impeccable track record with not a single positive pathogen test during its seven years of being licensed to sell raw milk. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) has even sent people wanting to start a raw milk dairy to HFD to learn how to set one up the proper way. In addition to selling around 500 gallons of milk each week, the dairy also produces and sells raw milk cheese. HFD’s cheeses have won several American Cheese Society awards.
What HFD owners, Trent and Rachel Hendricks, found out this past summer was that all of this meant nothing when the dairy came under suspicion by the Pennsylvania Department of Health and PDA as being the cause of a foodborne illness outbreak. Between September 1st and the 12th, 2008, the Pennsylvania Department of Health identified a total of seven confirmed cases of campylobacter infection among raw milk drinkers “in seven unrelated households in Pennsylvania and a neighboring state.”
On September 11, the PDA came to obtain samples of milk from HFD. On that day the agency asked Trent to voluntarily suspend sales of raw milk; Trent refused and requested that the state not issue any press release until the test results were known. Ultimately, the agency took ten milk samples from the farm. To verify the accuracy of PDA’s testing, Trent took a split sample of each sample taken by PDA and sent them to an independent lab for testing. On September 12, PDA delivered a letter to Trent officially suspending his sales. The permit suspension letter stated, “The presence of the disease-producing organism Campylobacter in raw milk from Hendricks Farms and Dairy operation renders that milk unsafe, and is a violation of the requirement of the Milk Sanitation Law….”
According to a guidance document issued by PDA, the agency must give a raw milk licensee at least five days advanced written notice of a raw milk permit suspension. The only way the agency can legally suspend a licensee’s sales before that time, other than the farmer agreeing to a voluntary suspension, is through a court order. PDA’s suspension letter to HFD on September 12 violated its own guidelines. [This was a busy day for the agency—that morning Bill Chirdon, Director of PDA’s Bureau of Food Safety and Laboratory Services, and other agency employees raided Newville farmer Mark Nolt for a third time, once again confiscating thousands of dollars worth of food.]
The afternoon of September 12, the Pennsylvania Department of Health issued a press release advising consumers “who purchased raw milk from Hendricks Farm & Dairy of Telford, Montgomery County, to immediately discard the raw milk and any items made with the raw milk due to potential bacterial contamination.” Even though there was no record of anyone getting sick from “any items made with the raw milk,” the advisory warned consumers to get rid of the farm’s raw milk cheeses as well. PDA lifted the suspension on September 19.
All ten milk samples taken from the farm tested negative for campylobacter; an eleventh sample taken from an open container of milk purchased from HFD on August 30 tested positive for campylobacter. This was the only milk tested from which Trent was unable to get a split sample. Given the various possible ways it could have been contaminated, this sample would not have held up as evidence in a court of law. There was never any link established between the milk from the dairy and the campylobacter infection suffered by those who became ill.
The suspension hurt HFD tremendously. Retail sales at the dairy were down by at least 20 percent compared to sales levels before the suspension. At the present time, Trent has not yet decided whether to sue PDA for the damage done to the farm’s reputation and business.
Pete Kennedy is an attorney from Sarasota, Florida and president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (farmtoconsumer.org). He compiled the state milk laws posted at realmilk.com. He advises many farmers and members about legal issues surrounding raw milk.