A Minnesota farmer who beat charges of illegally distributing raw milk has again become a target of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which is trying to forbid him from selling food without a license.
An administrative law judge said recently that the department can block Alvin Schlangen of Freeport from selling food he did not produce.
The 55-year-old farmer's troubles with state regulators has become a focal point in the battle over raw milk. Advocates nationwide contend that unpasteurized dairy products can relieve allergies and prevent illness, while public health officials warn that raw milk can cause serious and sometimes fatal diseases.
The Department of Agriculture has long said its pursuit of unlicensed food distributors is in the interest of public health.
"Protecting the integrity of our food supply is a top priority for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture," spokeswoman Margaret Hart said in a statement. She said she could not comment on the judge's ruling because it is not final.
Schlangen's attorney, Nathan Hansen, said no one has been sickened by his client's actions and said the order is another example of the farmer being "constantly harassed" by an overbearing government.
"The only people that complain are the few people at the Department of Agriculture," Hansen said. "There's no other organic constituency that cares. There's nobody saying 'You made me sick.'?"
Schlangen is not the only farmer embroiled in the raw-milk debate. Eight people were sickened by E. coli bacteria found in raw milk traced to Minnesota producer Mike Hartmann. Hartmann, of Gibbon, paid a fine and was placed on probation after pleading guilty to similar misdemeanor charges, but in February was accused of violating his probation for again selling unpasteurized milk.
In late 2011, the Agriculture Department filed the petition to suspend Schlangen from selling food, alleging that he had manufactured, processed, sold or handled food without a license since 2009 through Freedom Farms Co-op, an online grocery sales and delivery service. As part of the service, the agency alleges, Schlangen bought products he didn't produce, such as unpasteurized dairy products and uninspected meat, then sold them to members through the co-op.
Under Minnesota law, milk that hasn't been pasteurized -- heat-treated to kill harmful bacteria -- can be sold only in limited amounts on the farm where it's produced.
Schlangen maintained to the department that he was operating a private cooperative "food club," not a for-profit business. Agriculture officials say the evidence shows that Schlangen buys foods at wholesale prices and sells them at retail prices on his website.
Additionally, the agency said, Schlangen's claims that he doesn't sell the products "is immaterial because Minnesota food laws are not limited to sales, but also include activities like 'handling' and 'storing.' It is undisputed that Schlangen handles, stores and delivers food."
Administrative Law Judge Amy Chantry signed off on an order allowing the commissioner to suspend Schlangen's sales. Hansen said he intends to file exceptions saying his client disagrees with the decision, but that they'll likely be fruitless. The penalty for defying the order could be misdemeanor criminal charges, he said.
A jury found Schlangen not guilty last September of three misdemeanor counts of selling unpasteurized milk, operating without a food license and handling unadulterated or misbranded food in what supporters called a major victory for food freedom. He is to stand trial in June in Stearns County for similar charges.
Hansen said a change in the law is probably necessary for farmers like Schlangen to continue their co-op.
"I think you're always going to have these arguments about food regulation, but if you look squarely at the raw milk issue, you just have to say a group of like-minded people should be able to distribute it if they want to."