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PA Ag Department wants farmer Amos Miller to succeed, ‘frustrated’ at failure to follow food safety rules

  • By Dan Nephin/LNP | LancasterOnline
This file photo from 2016 shows Miller's Organic Farm in Upper Leacock Township, Lancaster County.

 Dan Nephin / LNP | LancasterOnline

This file photo from 2016 shows Miller's Organic Farm in Upper Leacock Township, Lancaster County.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture wants farmer Amos Miller to succeed but is frustrated at his unwillingness to comply with food safety rules, the state agriculture secretary said Monday.

The department has “really worked hard to try to bring Mr. Miller along. … (But) when you’re contacted by other states’ health departments, right, that is not a good look for Pennsylvania. And, unfortunately, in this case, there’s illness involved,” Secretary Russell Redding said during an interview with state Rep. David Zimmerman at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

On Thursday, armed with a search warrant, state officials removed edible products from Miller’s Upper Leacock Township farm based on reports linking them to E. coli infections in two other states. What wasn’t removed was placed under a detention order, meaning they can’t be moved.

The department said Miller does not have a state permit to sell raw milk nor has he registered his retail operation with the state. Raw milk does not undergo pasteurization, a process in which milk is heated to kill dangerous bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli, and listeria, which are responsible for causing numerous foodborne illnesses, including diarrhea, cramps, kidney failure and, in rare cases, death.

No charges have been filed as of Tuesday, and it was not immediately clear what sanctions are possible for failing to register a retail establishment or selling raw milk without a permit.

In 2020, a department spokesperson acknowledged that punishments for violating raw milk statutes are rare.

Messages seeking comment from Miller’s attorney were not returned.

Because the matter is being investigated, an agriculture spokesperson said the agency could not comment about Miller’s case. But Redding discussed the case during a brief interview with Zimmerman, a Republican from East Earl.

Zimmerman acknowledged that he understood that Miller wasn’t willing to be inspected, but he noted to Redding that there are people who want his products.

Miller has long maintained that he does not sell to the public, but rather, to members of his farm’s “private membership association.” Therefore, he has said previously, he doesn’t have to comply with government regulations.

The federal government filed a civil suit against him in 2019 in part over that erroneous contention.

Redding argued that it’s a matter of public health and fairness to Miller’s fellow farmers.

“We do thousands of those. So you’ve got neighbors, he’s got neighbors, who are in the same business, who are doing everything they need to do, and they’re putting product in the commercial space. And they’re doing it all under the structures of (federal, state and local regulatory agencies),” Redding said. “Our frustration has just been a complete sort of avoidance (and) rejection, quite frankly, of his interest in doing that.”

Redding said Miller has done a lot of good things, but the risks he’s taken and exposed others to means the department doesn’t have any other option than to seize his products for testing.

“And if he says, ‘Well, I shouldn’t have to do this.’ What do we say to every other farm and every other food processor in Pennsylvania? Doesn’t matter? We think it does,” Redding said.

In an interview Tuesday, Zimmerman reiterated his assertion that there’s a fine line between individual freedom and government responsibility and said the Miller case is happening at a time of “so little trust in government.”

Zimmerman said he had not been to Miller’s farm and could not speak to the agriculture department’s stated reasons for seizing products from Miller’s farm.

According to the department, the current number of raw milk permit holders stands at 90 statewide and of that number, 23 permits are in Lancaster County. That’s down from 2015, when the department issued 154 permits.

Miller came to the attention of federal authorities in 2016 after the Food and Drug Administration said it identified listeria in samples of Miller’s raw milk and found it to be genetically similar to the bacteria in two people who developed listeriosis — one of whom died — after consuming raw milk.

He later tangled with federal food safety officials over failure to comply with federal meat inspection rules.. But the parties resolved the dispute by early 2023, and the federal court docket for Miller’s case shows it was closed in August.

Miller paid fines and costs of about $85,000 related to that case. Supporters raised well over $500,000 in that case and a campaign has been created for his latest case.

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 1,500 people had given more than $115,000.

In December 2022, LNP | LancasterOnline had identified six campaigns that had raised more than a half-million dollars for Miller related to his previous battles.

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