A Lancaster County farmer that’s been at odds with the federal government over meat and poultry inspections says a court ruling this week allows him the ability to still sell his products.
The U.S. Department of Justice sued Miller’s Organic Farm in April, contending the Upper Leacock Township farm — which describes itself as a private club that sells only to members — was selling unsafe food nationwide to consumers. The Justice Department contends the products weren’t federally inspected.
Miller’s had claimed that because it was a members-only club, it was exempt from federal regulations.
Judge Edward G. Smith ruled Nov. 19 that such associations must follow the law.
In a news release Nov. 20 announcing the ruling, U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain said the government “will continue to take enforcement action whenever commercial sellers ignore the rule of law, make up their own sets of rules, or otherwise attempt to hide behind a business structure to thwart congressionally mandated federal oversight.”
Owner Amos Miller said last week the ruling allows him the ability to continue selling meat and poultry.
Smith is “not forcing us to do federal inspection. We’re going to try to work with (regulators) on a custom exemption” for butchering, Miller said.
The court’s ruling says, essentially, that Miller must either allow federal inspection — required to sell meat from the processor — or qualify for custom exemption.
A custom-exempt butcher shop processes meat for the animal owner’s personal use only. Butcher shops that process deer for hunters are often custom exempt.
Farmers have found a loophole. The producer can sell a customer a live animal or a share of it, and the customer, now the owner of the animal, can provide the cutting instructions to the processor.
But for most direct-marketing situations, such as selling individual cuts at farmers markets, federal inspection is essential.
The farm currently doesn’t qualify for exemption, and Miller said becoming a federally inspected facility would mean inspectors must be present when animals are butchered. That’s twice a week.
Custom-exempt shops are only periodically inspected by relevant agencies.
Miller estimated upgrading to federal inspection would cost about $50,000 to $100,000 and would likely force his business to close.
Many direct-marketing livestock producers take their animals to a federally inspected meat processor, but because of high demand, farmers often must schedule months in advance.
The court’s order allows the farm to sell its existing supply of meat and poultry to members over the next two months.
Miller estimated he has about 400 to 500 customers a week. That figure includes all customers, not just those buying meat or poultry.
The farm sells a range of products, from raw milk to fermented vegetables to meat and poultry.
Miller said the farm typically butchers two to three cattle a week and the same number of pigs. It slaughters about 8,000 to 9,000 chickens annually.
In his ruling, Smith said, “There is a cognizable danger that, based on the defendants’ past and continuing conduct, they will, unless restrained by order of this court, continue to violate” food safety laws.
The government said this is the first suit in which federal food safety inspectors got a ruling against a private membership association farm business to enforce food safety laws.