Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Civil Authority

I saw this video here. This is Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) agent Jackie Owens attempting to carry out an inspection at the farm of Vernon Herschberger. Like Dan Allgyer in Pennsylvania, Herschberger is in the middle of the national debate over raw milk. In some ways their cases are very similar.

One thing that struck me in watching this video was the civility of the proceedings. While Ms. Owens was clearly frustrated and exasperated that the Hershbergers were not cooperative, she never lost her cool. She did a good job playing the good cop.

This civility was noted in the blog and comments, with various political spins attached, but I want to look at it from a different perspective. (And let's also leave aside the fact that this interaction was recorded, and how that may have changed her demeanor.)

If this is how regulators act when investigating a relatively powerless independent farmer, how do they act toward the big players? Is civil authority sometimes too civil?

What if Ms. Owens were investigating, say, Dean Foods, ConAgra, or Monsanto? Of course she would probably get lunch, maybe cocktails. She would meet with someone who was paid to know not only all the right lawyer-vetted things to say, but how to schmooze and flatter. She would get assurances of full cooperation ("Have your lawyer call my lawyer next Tuesday..."). Who could blame her for coming away with a better impression, emotionally if not intellectually?

Even if she was meeting with a farmer-supplier to one of these giants, she would still get a nice glossy brochure and assurances of corporate back-up, which if things escalated might lead to lunch and schmoozing but probably not to confrontation and open defiance.

You've probably heard the metaphor of the fox guarding the hen house. Well, this is more like the sheepdog running with the wolf pack. It is common enough in government-business relations to have a sober academic title: agency capture (aka regulatory capture). It leads to the culture of complacency, collusion, and neglect that has been blamed for oil spills, mine collapses, and other industrial calamities over the years. It also leads to, and results from, the revolving door that turns hen house guards into foxes and vice-versa.

Of course it doesn't start in the workplace. As surely as the pamphlets in a urologist's office are published by the makers of Viagra®, industry has its hands in the relevant departments of colleges and universities, trying to win the hearts and minds of tomorrow's regulators. Some effort starts before that too, but the concentrated targeting fits well with the specialization of higher education.

The regulators and the largest companies in the industries they are supposed to regulate, then, are on the same team. They may have their internal squabbles, but when it comes to competition for dollars or public opinion they pull together. Small independent producers are the competition. They don't have enough power or influence to buy their way into the club, so they must stay out of the way or face the consequences.

The way to change that is the same way anything has ever really changed in this country, through grassroots activism, demonstrations, boycotts, and civil disobedience. For more info visit


  1. With the current uproar over fresh milk, I suggest producers take extra precautions againts tampering and contamination by recently hired employees (planted agents), inspectors, or visitors.

    Wouldn't it be nice if they spent this much energy and effort to clean up the BigBusiness farms and ranches? I guess money still $peaks.

  2. Scott, that sounds like very good advice. Most of these producers are very small-scale and family run, so tampering is not likely. What really peeves me is there is no contamination or illness involved in most of these cases, certainly not in the case of Dan Allgyer. The FDA infiltrated the private buying club like it was on a DEA sting operation.

    Yes, money speaks, and the moneyed interests want to crush the raw milk movement in the bud. The only thing possibly stronger than money is organization, and so far we lack the level of organization needed to fight this directly.