At the end of 2017 there were several enforcement actions and investigations underway against raw milk distributors. In a Kansas City district court the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was seeking an order allowing it to seize and destroy $70,000 of camel milk and camel milk products, most of it unpasteurized. Government agencies in four different states were investigating a New Jersey food buyers club in connection with an illness attributed to raw milk consumption. In a separate investigation the New Jersey Department of Health sent cease and desist letters to a number of private residences in that state that were allegedly serving as dropsites for the distribution of raw milk and other nutrient-dense foods.
Out of the three cases, the only illness involved was traced to the administration of a brucellosis vaccine to a cow that resulted in active brucella showing up in the raw milk. In the FDA and New Jersey Department of Health investigations there were no allegations of adulterated raw dairy or other foods being distributed. Still, distributors in all three cases could be subject to criminal and/or civil penalties for distributing food their customers believed best for their health and well-being. As the new year gets underway what laws could be passed to better protect producers and distributors of nutrient-dense foods and improve the chances of those individuals getting justice if the government brings a formal administrative or judicial action against them. Here are some suggestions towards making this happen.
Jury nullification is the legal concept where the jury has the right to acquit the defendant even if the law points toward guilt if the jury believes that it would be unjust to apply the law given the facts of the case. Jury nullification can take place in either criminal or civil trials. The Alvin Schlangen and Vernon Hershberger trials, respectively in Wisconsin and Minnesota, were jury nullification cases where the juries refused to convict the two for violations of the food and dairy laws even though under the letter of the law either could have been found guilty.
The U.S Supreme Court has recognized the right of a jury to acquit a defendant when it believes that the application of the law to the facts of the case would be unjust.1 The trouble with jury nullification at the federal level and in nearly all states is that even though the jury has the right to judge the law as well as the facts in a case, judges and defense attorneys are prohibited from informing juries that this right exists. States need to pass laws lifting this prohibition.
In 2012 the New Hampshire legislature passed a law stating, “In all criminal proceedings the court shall permit the defendant to inform the jury of its right to judge the facts and the application of the law in relation to those facts.” In a 2014 case, State v. Paul2 the New Hampshire Supreme Court held that this law did not impose any obligation on the court to “instruct the jury as to jury nullification.”2,3
- In response to the supreme court’s ruling a bill (HB 133) was introduced in the 2017 New Hampshire legislative session that read: In all criminal proceedings the court shall inform the jury of its right to judge the facts and the application of the law in relation to the facts in controversy. At the request of the defendant or the defendant’s attorney, the court shall instruct the jury as follows: “If you have a reasonable doubt as to whether the state has proved any one or more of the elements of the crime charged, you must find the defendant not guilty. However if you find that the state has proved all the elements of the offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt, you should find the defendant guilty. Even if you find that the state has proved all of the elements of the offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt, you may still find that based upon the facts of this case a guilty verdict will yield an unjust result, and you may find the defendant not guilty.”
The 2017 New Hampshire bill is the type of legislation that needs to pass to strengthen the juror’s right of nullification. At a minimum it makes no sense that a defense attorney cannot even inform the jury of this right. Jurors should not have to work in the blind as to their nullifying rights as they did in the Hershberger and Schlangen cases where the law prohibited the judge and the defense attorneys from telling the jury directly about jury nullification. Jury nullification is a bedrock of our justice system; jurors should be educated about it.
Jury Trials in Food Condemnation Cases
Government agencies generally have to petition courts to destroy food the agencies have seized. The government usually does this on the grounds of protecting the public health but in nearly all cases there is no evidence that the food from the same production batch under seizure has made anyone sick. For some producers or distributors a single court order to destroy food can put them out of business. In cases like the Kansas raw camel milk seizure the government hasn’t even alleged that the milk is adulterated or a threat to human health.
In one Missouri case, a court ordered the destruction of over 30,000 pounds of raw cheese even though the cheese manufacturer, Morningland Dairy, had never been accused of making anyone sick in 30 years of doing business and neither FDA nor the Missouri Milk Board had tested any of the cheese subject to the destruction order. FDA had taken 100 environmental swabs at the facility all of which were negative for the pathogen. Judges who rule against destroying food are in a no-win situation even if the facts of the case favor the food producer or distributor; they are under tremendous pressure to err on the side of protecting the public health even if there is no real health threat at all. A jury would better take into consideration the evidence on the side of producers and distributors in these cases.
Jury Trial for Cases Where the Government Seeks a Permanent Injunction Against Food Producers and Distributors
An injunction is a court order prohibiting someone from doing some specified act or commanding someone to undo some wrong or injury. A permanent injunction is a final court order that is permanently in effect unless the court lifts the order. Those who violate the injunction can face contempt charges with the possibility of fines and/or jail time.
In Michigan the past couple of years the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) has brought court actions for injunction against two different raw milk producers, Hill High Dairy and Dairy Delight Cow Boarding, for matters that should not have been any of MDARD’s business. In the Hill High Dairy case the department tried to stop individuals leasing cows from having the leaseholders hire someone to process their own raw milk into other dairy products; in the Dairy Delight case the department tried to stop those in a herdshare program from selling, among other foods, oatmeal cookies and apple muffins to other shareholders without proper labeling. Both cases involved private, closed-loop transactions far outside the stream of public commerce; in the Hill High Dairy case, MDARD not only obtained an injunction against the dairy prohibiting it from violating state food and dairy laws but brought contempt charges against the dairy when its leaseholders continued to have their raw milk processed into other dairy products. Thankfully, the judge hearing the case brought some common sense to the matter when he ruled the dairy was not in contempt.
Agencies like MDARD would be less likely to bring actions for an injunction and contempt suits for violation of an injunction in these type of cases if they knew that food producers and distributors would be entitled to a trial by a jury of their peers.
Right to Jury Trial for Appeals of Administrative Rulings
Government agencies seeking to punish food producers with penalties such as license revocation or fines can resort to administrative hearings where the odds of success are not as great for producers as they would be in a judicial court. Several raw milk producers have found out firsthand that administrative hearings are often one-sided proceedings in which those the agency is trying to punish are afforded little due process.
One Ohio farmer had his dairy license revoked at an administrative hearing for taking a $2.00 donation for a gallon of raw milk he gave to an undercover officer from the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Raw dairy producers have been through administrative hearings where, even if the person presiding over the hearing ruled against the government agency, the agency had the power legally to ignore the ruling and issue the order it wanted to anyway.
Parties can appeal the ruling to a judicial trial court; the courts sits as an appellate court for the appeal but is limited to reviewing just the record from the administrative proceeding. The system needs to change so that the trial court would sit as a trial court trying the matter from the beginning as if it had never been heard in the administrative proceeding (the legal term is de novo trial) to give the individual the agency seeks to punish a fresh start in a less biased proceeding. To further discourage government harassment there should be a right to a jury trial in the appeal of an administrative proceeding to a judicial court.
Even if a state currently has a favorable regulatory climate for the production and distribution of nutrient-dense food, it is still the right move to pass the laws suggested above in case the enforcement policy of the agencies ever change.
Producers and distributors of raw milk and other nutritious foods who take the risks they do to make those foods available deserve to get justice and not just law if a court action is brought against them. Greater protection is needed for those who provide for our sustenance.
 Spanf v. United States 156 U.S. 51 (1895)
 State v. Paul 167 N.H. 39,42
 The jury instruction the trial court judge gave in the Paul case was: “You should follow the law as I explain it regardless of any opinion you may have as to what the law ought to be. If you have a reasonable doubt as to whether the State has proved any one or more of the elements of the crime charged, you must find the defendant not guilty. However, if you find that the state has proved all elements beyond a reasonable doubt, you should find the defendant guilty.” Paul, p. 41.