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Why Aren't Liberals Standing up for Food Rights?

The US ranks with Cuba and North Korea for coming down on its smallest farms harshly for following the centuries-old tradition of selling food privately to friends and neighbors.

Photo Credit: Goodluz/


Quick, name three countries that crack down on small farmers who follow the centuries-old tradition of selling food privately to friends and neighbors.

If you guessed North Korea and Cuba, you are correct. If you are still trying to figure out the third country, here’s a hint: it’s the land of the free and home of private enterprise.  Aside from North Korea and Cuba, the United States has come down on its smallest farms as harshly as any for following the centuries-old tradition of selling food privately to friends and neighbors. 


• In just the last two years, America’s government apparatus has sought severe criminal penalties against three farmers (in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California) for allegedly selling food without a license.

• Two other farmers (in Pennsylvania and Maine) have been hit with government demands for injunctions to prevent them from farming if they continue to distribute food to private groups of customers.

• A third farmer (in Michigan) has been notified, in the last few weeks, that he is being fined $700,000 for raising free-range pigs that he sells privately, and will be fined more if he continues the practice.

These three examples don’t include food clubs and private citizens in locales ranging from Kentucky to Missouri to Maryland hit with court-ordered searches, undercover operations, quarantines, and criminal charges by local, state, and federal authorities.

If these actions were taking place in Europe, Latin America, or Asia, the scenario of a big government backed by big corporations bullying small farmers would likely have American liberals enraged. But, since it’s happening so close to home, it has been virtually ignored by most of the so-called liberal media—except to chide and belittle those who seek out privately available food as people unconcerned with food safety, rabid meat eaters, politically wacko, or a combination of all three.

What’s especially unfortunate about the alienation of liberals over food rights is that much of it appears to be emotional in nature, rather than based on politics, or even ideology. Here are a few of the most commonly perceived reasons I have gleaned during my research into my latest book— Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights—as well as from covering several high-profile court cases involving farmers and food clubs.

Food rights is about undoing food safety regulation. The notion that small farms, because they sell directly to small private groups, should have some kind of regulatory exemption rubs many liberals the wrong way. Regulation, after all, has been the liberal answer to many problems in our society, with generally positive results. In this view, there’s no reason to think that more regulation isn’t the answer to upsetting reports of pathogens infesting seemingly safe foods like cantaloupe, peanut butter or ground beef, and leaving serious illness and even death, behind.

Yet food rights advocates aren’t pushing to undo regulation as much as allow farmers selling directly to small private groups of customers, outside the public network of distributors, wholesalers, and retailers, to avoid having to obtain costly licenses and permits requiring special facilities appropriate to large retail and food production operations. So far, juries in Minnesota and Wisconsin have agreed, and within the last year have acquitted two of the farmers charged criminally with failure to have retail and food handler licenses.

Food rights is mainly promoted by raw-milk and Ron-Paul-loving “kooks.” It’s true, former Congressman Ron Paul, a libertarian, is a supporter of raw milk. Before he retired earlier this year, he led a legislative effort in the U.S. House that never really got off the ground, to lift a 25-year federal ban on interstate sales and shipments of raw milk. His son, Sen. Rand Paul, has similarly become associated with the libertarian agenda and has been highly critical of the FDA’s crackdown on raw milk and other food producers around the country.  

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