By Pete Kennedy, Esq.
The story of Michele Reneau serves as an example of how a consumer can make an impact in advancing freedom of food choice. Reneau, who along with Nate and Anju Wilson manages a Chattanooga food buyers club, was the one most responsible for turning a potential enforcement action by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) into a legislative breakthrough and a new law benefiting food buyers clubs throughout the state.
Reneau, a Weston Price chapter leader and Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund member, has the right temperament and personality to take on government regulators. She doesn’t accept their general assertions of authority, contesting the regulators point by point—asking for specific citations in the law to back up their claims. She gives up ground to regulators grudgingly and is a strong believer that there is a legal distinction between the private and the public distribution of food.
Reneau, along with the Wilsons, manages the Weekly Fig, a private membership association. Among other foods, Weekly Fig distributes meats, eggs, raw dairy and baked goods to its members. On May 4, 2016, an official from TDA attempted to inspect the Weekly Fig’s facility for the storage and distribution of food. TDA had discovered Weekly Fig through the inspection of a neighboring licensed facility in the same complex. Reneau refused to let TDA conduct the inspection of the buyers club facility, claiming TDA did not have jurisdiction over her operation. On June 6 counsel for TDA sent Reneau and the Wilsons a warning letter identifying violations the Weekly Fig had allegedly committed, including operating an unlicensed establishment, offering for sale raw juice, and offering for sale raw milk and raw milk products.
An informal hearing was held on the matter June 30 between a representative for Weekly Fig and TDA officials; subsequently the department sent Weekly Fig correspondence upholding the written warnings against their unlicensed operation of a “food establishment” and their sale of raw milk, putting Reneau and the Wilsons on notice that “future violations of the same or similar sort—i.e. unlicensed operation as a food establishment or sale of raw milk—will be considered grounds for the Department to seek actions for injunction and/or criminal charges.”
In the absence of favorable case law on a legal distinction between public and private distribution of food, Reneau took the legislative route to fight back against the threat from TDA. On February 8, 2017, Tennessee State Senator Frank Niceley and State Representative Kevin Brooks introduced, respectively, Senate Bill 651 and House Bill 702, legislation removing any requirement for a permit to operate “a farm-to-consumer distribution point” (e.g., food buyers club). The bills were amended to add a provision stipulating that the facility must register with the state department of revenue for purposes of paying sales tax (food sold for human consumption is taxable in Tennessee) and must agree to only allow deliveries of meats produced by farmers who comply with the Tennessee Meat and Poultry Inspection Act; these are both existing requirements the facility is expected to comply with anyway. On May 11, 2017, SB 651 was signed into law. Reneau testified at the Senate committee hearing on the bill and according to Senator Niceley did a great job. FTCLDF worked on the development of the bill.
SB 651 is a big help for farmers; consumers like their convenience and will go more often to a centrally located buyers club site to spend their food dollars than they would going to a farm. Unless there were an exemption from the permit requirement, many food buyers clubs would not bother having a fixed central location for the distribution of food.
TDA has stopped pursuing any action against the Weekly Fig over the allegation that it was selling raw milk. The Weekly Fig does not sell raw milk and raw milk products, rather it distributes them to its members pursuant to a herdshare agreement; herdshare contracts are legal in Tennessee. It would be great to end by saying the government is leaving Weekly Fig alone with the new law in place but that hasn’t been the case. Even though state regulatory agencies have stopped bothering the food buyers club for the past several months, USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has been requesting that FSIS personnel be allowed to conduct an inspection of the Weekly Fig facility. FSIS has broad jurisdiction to inspect firms handling meat products but almost never uses it to inspect a facility like the Weekly Fig’s. The agency is asking for customer records detailing meat purchases and sales. The Weekly Fig’s charter prohibits the sharing of member information with anyone.
Reneau doesn’t know who made the complaint to FSIS but it doesn’t look like a coincidence that the complaint was made shortly before SB 651 became law. As she did with TDA, Reneau is contesting FSIS jurisdiction to inspect the facility by requesting that the agency give her specific citations in the law that give it the authority to inspect Weekly Fig; she is not giving FSIS an inch until it does so. To this point the agency has yet to attempt an inspection. What Reneau and the Wilsons have done is to realize the potential that consumers have to make changes in the laws governing local food. They have shown it doesn’t take many to make a difference.
Those who have not joined the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund are encouraged to do so. Membership applications are available online at www.farmtoconsumer.org or by calling (703) 208-FARM (3276); the mailing address is 8116 Arlington Blvd, Suite 263, Falls Church, VA 22042.
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