The undercover agent takes two guises in our national consciousness. At one extreme is the highly trained professional who risks his or her life to go after the worst drug dealers and mobsters. At the other extreme is the apolitical and poorly trained apparatchik, designated by a bureaucratic superior to infiltrate a group deemed subversive or otherwise troublesome to authorities. The infiltrator may even become a provocateur as a way to give the authorities an excuse to crack down. Government agents did a lot of this during the 1960s, while monitoring civil rights and far-left organizations. At this end of the spectrum, the work is not only unglamorous but ethically questionable. Who wants to rat on their fellow citizens asserting rights guaranteed by the Constitution, like free speech, assembly and those not even mentioned because they seem so obvious, like consuming the foods of their choice?
This latter extreme was on display in early May in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, where Mennonite dairy farmer Glenn Wise was charged with three counts of selling unpasteurized milk without a license.
In a tiny magisterial district courtroom filled with about forty of Wise’s friends and supporters, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s case relied primarily on the testimony of an undercover agent, in real life a low-level PDA employee with the title “food sanitarian.” The agent-employee, Joe Goetz, painted a picture of an employee forced into distasteful undercover actions against a small farmer, the father of nine children.
“I was directed by my supervisor to make a purchase of raw milk and kefir” from Wise, Goetz stated under questioning by the PDA’s attorney. So Goetz infiltrated the Communities’ Alliance for Responsible EcoFarming (CARE), a private Pennsylvania buying club that serves as an umbrella organization for many of the state’s farmers who sell raw dairy products to consumers. He described how he went to the Wises’ Shady Acres Dairy Farm on three occasions in 2007 and 2008, each time purchasing half a gallon of raw milk and a quart of kefir.
When it was the defense’s turn, the slender, soft-spoken Wise, who handled his own defense, quickly showed himself to be a sharp inquisitor.
“So you did sign a CARE contract?”
“Did you read that contract?”
The CARE contract, it turns out, bounds members “under penalty of perjury” that they are “not acting under color of law to entrap, hurt, prosecute, or otherwise trespass/and/or gather information for any agency, corporation, person or other entity to in any way negatively affect the CARE Alliance/Association, its board of directors, members or its purpose.”
Magisterial District Judge Jayne Duncan dismissed two of the citations, and reduced the fine on the third from $300 to $50, saying the PDA had been “unfair” by using secretive methods, including an undercover agent, to go after Wise. The farmer was relieved, but vowed to appeal the $50 fine to a higher court, to get a further ruling on not only the PDA’s tactics but on his right to sell unpasteurized dairy products privately to consumers. The agency currently allows raw milk sales by licensed dairies, but prohibits all sales of unpasteurized yogurt, kefir, butter and other similar products.
The case against Glenn Wise is only the latest in a troubling series of legal cases in which both state and federal authorities are relying on undercover agents to entrap dairy farmers. “They’re relying on undercover agents more than in the past,” says veteran agriculture attorney Gary Cox, who has represented a number of dairy farmers around the country on behalf of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. “My take is that since there is more and more raw milk consumption, the regulators are going undercover more and more.”