Many folks who wanted to attend the hearing were denied access, because the hearing room was inadequate. The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) has called on Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley to investigate what they see as a serious violation of the state's open meetings law. The OCA press release is here. Their letter to Attorney General Coakley is here.
Winton Pitcoff of the Northeast Organic Farming Association sent out an email yesterday detailing some conversations he had had with Soares. These details do not seem to be available on any web page [UPDATE: they're available here], so I excerpt Pitcoff's email at the bottom of this post.
Raw milk in Massachusetts is still very much in the news.
In the meantime, based on what I've seen and read, I may understand more of what has been going on in the statehouse.
I don't think that the MDAR or Commissioner Scott Soares has any beef (so to speak) with raw milk or with raw milk buying clubs. Until January, the MDAR has known about these clubs, and has ignored them. (It is silly to suggest that MDAR might not have known about them.) In my opinion, neglect was absolutely the appropriate policy: the clubs are far outside of the jurisdiction of the MDAR.
In January, faced with formal letters from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH), the MDAR felt that it had to do something, in order to keep the peace within the state government. Cease-and-desist letters followed, along with a proposed hearing. The events around the hearing demonstrated to everyone that the MDAR could not adopt new regulations without unleashing a huge public outcry (and due to their mishandling of the situation, they got an outcry anyway).
It's nice to think that MDAR is an ally of raw milk, in theory at least, and that there might be some level of raw milk access that they are willing to defend. But five months ago, we had many raw milk buying clubs; now, the largest and most visible of these clubs are gone. Access to raw milk has been restricted, and farm revenues diminished. This is a tide that must be reversed.
(Thoughts, comments, disagreements, arguments welcome.)
Excerpt from NOFA's June 6 email:
No Additional Raw Milk Hearings
MDAR says buying clubs still illegal
In response to an inquiry from the NOFA/Massachusetts Raw Milk Network, Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) Commissioner Scott Soares said that the department will not hold additional hearings on raw milk regulations at this time, and the regulations as they are currently written will stand during what he said he expects to be a lengthy process leading up to any changes. Soares indicated that as a result of internal review and comments that have been collected regarding this issue thus far, adequate examination will exceed the current resources and capacity of the agency. "In the interest of providing sufficient attention to matters associated with raw milk," said Soares, "the agency will indefinitely postpone any further public work around regulatory changes that were proposed in April." (See here for details about that proposal).
In a June 3 phone call with NOFA/Massachusetts Raw Milk Network coordinator Winton Pitcoff, Soares said that discussions will continuewithin the Department about how to best maintain access to safe raw milk in MA, and NOFA/Mass staff and raw milk farmers will have opportunities to participate in those discussions. Any decisions to pursue regulatory changes would be publicly announced and hearings would be held.
"It remains illegal for businesses engaged in milk distribution to operate without a milk dealer license," said Commissioner Soares. Soares said that no buying club has yet applied for a milk dealer license, and that the Department would have to examine how to handle such a request. Soares added that the Department has not pursued further action against any buying clubs and that the Cease and Desist letters sent to clubs earlier this year were meant to alert those groups that they were operating illegally.
Soares said that as the Department continues its examination of the regulations, "everything is on the table. We will consider extended sales and what it would take to make those sales safe." He reiterated MDAR's commitment to on-farm raw milk sales, and said that there have been no discussions to eliminate or further restrict such sales.
Proposed changes to the regulations that do not pertain to buying clubs -- dilution levels of chlorine in water used to sanitize caps, flooring in milking parlors, etc. -- are still being reviewed "in the context of the comments provided" and to confirm alignment with the federal Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, said Soares.
The NOFA/Massachusetts Raw Milk Network has obtained copies of all of the email and written comments submitted to MDAR during the April/May comment period. Approximately 285 comments were submitted, with all but one of them indicating opposition to the proposed additional restrictions on raw milk sales. The lone letter in support of tighter regulations came from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (see NOFA's response to that letter here).
MDAR posted 'FAQ's About Buying Raw Milk in Massachusetts' on its website following the May 10 hearing.
The NOFA/Massachusetts Raw Milk Network remains committed to ensuring access to raw milk for consumers and will continue to work with state agencies and officials toward expanding that access. There is demonstrated demand for raw milk from consumers and farmers have proven they can produce raw milk safely. Massachusetts' 27 licensed raw milk dairies sell more than 80,000 gallons of milk a year to customers around the state and steward more than 3,500 acres of Massachusetts farmland. Sales of raw milk are an invaluable tool for preserving dairy farms, at a time when the dairy industry is in crisis and farms are closing at an alarming rate. Allowing expanded access to raw milk through such avenues as home delivery and farmers market sales will help further strengthen these farms.