Farmer in Antrim County is first to be convicted of a felony under Food Law



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Producing tainted cider has netted farmer James Ruster, who owns Mitchell Hill Farm in Antrim County, a prison sentence.

This is the first time a felony conviction has taken place under Michigan’s Food Act, PA 92 of 2000.

The story is simple. Mitchell Hill Farms and Ruster were licensed to produce maple syrup, but in 2011 Jim Padden, Northern Regional Supervisor at the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), received tips from more than one consumer that Mitchell Hill was selling apple cider as well. Neither Ruster nor anyone else at Mitchell Hill was licensed to produce cider.

“There were a couple of different times when we approached him,” Padden said. “First, our area inspector went out and talked to him, and we had him dump the cider.” The inspector found a number of unsanitary conditions on the farm’s cider production equipment.

Padden continued, “Later, the inspector and I went to Mr. Ruster’s farm to talk to him. Well, things did not go very well, as far as him not wanting to hear what we wanted to tell him — he felt that we were intruding on his rights. Frankly, we had concerns about our safety.”

Padden and MDARD continued to send him cease and desist orders. Then the situation occurred that they were diligently trying to avoid: there was an outbreak of illness caused by the virulent E. Coli strain O157:H7. Four individuals, including two children, sickened after drinking cider.

Investigators from the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, MDARD and the Michigan Department of Community Health traced the cider consumed back to Mitchell Hill Farm.

According to Padden, “We were told by the local health department’s Environmental Health Director and the Medical Officer that we needed to do an environmental assessment. Once we knew we had to go to the farm, we knew we weren’t going to be invited, so we went to the District Court and got an administrative warrant. That same afternoon we executed a warrant search the premises and to seize any food that he had produced.”

The Antrim County Prosecutor, with assistance from the Attorney General’s office, decided to bring felony charges. 

These fall under MCL 289.5107 which states:

“(2) Notwithstanding the other provisions of this act, a person who knowingly violates section 5101(1)(b)... is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 4 years or by a fine of not more than $10,000.00 plus twice the amount of any economic benefit associated with the violation, or both.

Section 5101 says, “A person shall not do or cause to be done any of the following...

“(b) Adulterate or misbrand food.”

After a series of proceedings,  including a proposed jury trial, Ruster pled guilty. At the sentencing on Feb. 18, Judge Philip E. Rodgers, Jr., sentenced him to 14 to 48 months in prison, plus fines and court costs. Ruster, who had already served two days at the time of his arrest, began serving immediately.

The back story involves exemplary coordination between state agencies. The Attorney General’s office asked for, and received, the injunction against Ruster producing more cider. The Michigan State Police accompanied MDARD representatives to the farm, “because we knew he might be confrontational,” according to Padden. “It seemed prudent to have sworn officers with us.”

It also involves  dedication on the part of MDARD to keeping the food supply safe throughout the process. 

As Brad Deacon, MDARD emergency management and administrative law coordinator, says, ““We have taken this very seriously. When Public Health and Agriculture work together and identify the source of an outbreak, then when that comes to us we have to act to prevent additional illnesses. And the Food Law has provisions that help us do that.”

Deacon, an attorney who is also an adjunct professor at Michigan State University School of Law, and was formerly legislative liaison and regulatory affairs officer at MDARD, added, “Our department has a long history of compliance assistance. When we see something that could get people sick, we will seize it and order it taken care of or destroyed, but our real goal is to bring people into compliance. This kind of scenario is unusual – most food processors want to do the right thing.”

Jennifer Holton, Director of Communications for MDARD, agrees, saying,“This is not indicative of the cider industry as a whole. Most producers are following good agricultural practices. It’s incredibly unfortunate and frankly a little bit tragic for something like this to have happened.”

According to Antrim Court Reporter Jessica James, the sentencing transcript reflects that Ruster said, “I’m sorry,” repeatedly to those he had harmed. There will be a restitution hearing March 17, and Deacon says that will still not preclude further civil suits against Ruster.

There is a sense, however, in which such conflicts may become more prevalent, as laws are enacted to prevent food-borne disease outbreaks.

Small farmers, those most likely to sell directly to consumers at farmers’ markets and through other channels, often have difficulty complying with food safety laws, due to either costs or record-keeping requirements that may be onerous at a small scale while they are not for larger farms.

While most small farmers recognize the need for food safety and inspections, there has been widespread concern among direct-sale and small-scale farmers about upcoming implementation of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act, so much so that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is now going to revise its rules.

It is worth noting that food safety was a leading concern at a recent local meeting at the Grand Rapids Downtown Market for statewide “food hubs,” aimed at those who want to create the infrastructure for local and regional food commerce, hosted by the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University. A representative of the Upper Peninsula Food Exchange gave an entire presentation on how to make food safety laws work for smaller farms.

“It’s paramount that we maintain the safety of Michigan’s food and agriculture products,” stated Jamie Clover-Adams, MDARD Director. “Mr. Ruster showed a blatant neglect for not only the safety of his food products, but the health of his customers,” she added, stressing that the incident in no way reflects

the integrity and food safety record of licensed apple cider producers.

Diane Smith of The Michigan Apple Cider Industry responded, “In fact, the Michigan Apple Industry works with Michigan State University Extension and [MDARD] to provide training and certification...

“For the last decade, Michigan’s cider makers have worked at the state level to update Michigan’s cider food safety measures,” she continued, “and in 2009, they were instrumental in the passage of Section 7106 of House Bill 4956, requiring each establishment pressing cider to have at least one active employee who has completed a recognized food safety program.”