As director of the Division of Quality Assurance and Regulations at the Maine Department of Agriculture, I feel compelled to respond to “Maine Agriculture Department wields a heavy hand,” a Nov. 29 BDN OpEd column.
Our department has a legal obligation to enforce various health and safety laws. The goal of these laws is to protect public health, enhance food safety and quality and promote confidence in the food supply for consumers.
The sale of raw milk is legal in the state of Maine, but there are some basic safety and sanitation requirements that must be followed in order to obtain and maintain a license to sell raw milk. Contrary to the opinion stated by some, a personal relationship and warm feelings toward the vendor is not a reliable indicator of cleanliness, nor does it impart anti-bacterial properties.
Pathogens of the type that can make people extremely sick and in some instances result in
death cannot be seen or smelled. If a food smells bad that is spoilage, nature’s way of saying this food is past its prime. Bacteria and other pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella, Clostridium botulinum (b otulism), Campylobacter and hepatitis do not play by any such rules.
Contrary to information being conveyed by Mr. Brown and his supporters, he was repeatedly informed of his responsibility to be licensed and inspected in accordance with Maine law. On multiple occasions he refused offers of support from our department to assist him with licensure and safety inspection steps, including water and TB testing.
As a last resort, and in strict compliance with federal guidelines for the taking of samples and transportation procedures, the department purchased Mr. Brown’s raw milk on July 26, 2011. Samples taken from his used, dented and unlabeled plastic fruit juice containers revealed
bacterial counts showing contamination levels 10 to 15 times greater than allowed by law.
We believe the products sold by Mr. Brown pose a significant health risk to consumers. Regulation of the sale of these products through state licensing and inspection is important because it allows for the traceback of any contaminated product. Mr. Brown, or others who wish to engage in the sale of raw milk and other products, need to make a minimum investment in sanitary equipment and facilities to protect their customers’ health.
The Department of Agriculture approaches our regulatory role as a partnership with Maine businesses and we offer our resources, whenever possible, to help improve their processing techniques. Department staff, including the state veterinarian, work extensively with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension to provide assistance to food processors and farmers.
In fact, over the years, hundreds of dairy farmers and processors have benefited from the
assistance of department personnel in helping them with start-up issues and in troubleshooting quality problems. There are many success stories in Maine of small cottage food producers who started in the home kitchen and grew to nationally recognized brands.
A little science and a lot of hot water go a long way toward food safety. The Maine Department of Agriculture’s statutory responsibility to protect health enhances the marketing efforts and success of 1,200 small home food processors, artisan cheese makers and raw milk sellers who participate in Maine’s license and support programs.
Hal Prince is director of the Division of Quality Assurance and Regulations at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources.