The Ocheesee Creamery makes and bottles all-natural milk at a dairy farm about an hour west of Tallahassee. Skim milk was a big seller for the small operation, but skim milk production abruptly stopped, when state dairy regulators recently said Ocheesee can’t sell it without adding a synthetic vitamin.
Ocheesee Creamery co-owner Mary Lou Wesselhoeft walks past baby cows in the same backyard she’s known her entire life.
“The house we live in here, this is the house my parents moved in 1952, and I was born in the house, and my husband and I got married in the front yard,” she said.
The farm is on State Road 69 in Calhoun County. For two decades, Wesselhoeft and her husband, Paul, sold milk to a cooperative, which mixed it with milk from other small dairies, homogenized it and sold it to grocery stores.
In 2009, the Wesselhoefts dropped out of the co-op and started bottling and selling their own all-natural milk.
Giving a tour of the processing plant, she said, “The big tank over there is the pasteurizer. And so that heats the milk to 147 [degrees]. And then we hold it there for 30 minutes. They call it a VAT pasteurization, and it’s the old-fashioned way, and when you’re done, the cream still comes to the top.”
When the cream is taken off, what’s left is low-fat or skim milk. Wesselhoeft said, that milk was bringing in about $4,000 a month. Coffee shops were buying it to make all-natural low-fat lattes, and customers at Tallahassee’s New Leaf Market were also big fans.
Month after month, inspectors from the Florida Department of Agriculture would take samples of the skim milk and test it at a state lab. Wesselhoeft has a stack of reports that came back from the lab with “acceptable” written on the skim milk line.
Things were running smoothly, until October of last year, when a new inspector showed up.
“She came up to check behind our regular inspector. And it was when she came that she told us we could no longer do skim milk,” Wesselhoeft said.
The inspector said, Ocheesee would have to start adding vitamin A to their skim milk. It’s a U.S. Food and Drug Administration rule. Vitamin A occurs naturally in milk fat, so when you remove that, you have to put in a synthetic vitamin.
But Wesselhoeft said, her customers wouldn’t buy it like that.
“By putting the vitamin A in the skim milk, for me personally, that’s downgrading the milk quality because it’s no longer all natural,” she said.
Department of Agriculture Director of Food Safety, Tiffiani Onifade, said, she doesn't know why Ocheesee had been allowed to sell all-natural skim milk for years. But the department has to follow federal laws and state rules.
“All milk and milk products are treated the same way. All milk producers in Florida are treated the same way, so with respect to that, there aren’t exemptions,” she said.
Pete Kennedy is president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, a group the Wesselhoefts belong to. He said, other states with similar laws to Florida are granting vitamin A exemptions for small-scale producers.
“These agencies have the discretion whether to enforce these laws or not, and at least in these other two states, these agencies have made the decision not to enforce the laws,” he said.
Wesselhoeft said, the skim milk shut-down has cost Ocheesee $30,000 in six months. They’ve had to raise prices on butter and whole milk. And despite meetings with state lawmakers, she says, the Department of Agriculture is shutting her out.
As a last-ditch resort, she’s meeting with someone in Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office on Friday. And she said, she’s optimistic, because she thinks it’s all been a big misunderstanding.
“They forget that they’re there to serve the people and to help us instead of to make our lives more difficult,” she said.
Onifade, the food safety director, said, the department will be happy to work with Ocheesee to bring the farm up to standard. Wesselhoeft said, that means, they'd have to put in a vitamin A injector and create an on-site lab to self-test for vitamin A levels. She said, aside from the all-natural issue, the cost of the upgrades would likely put them out of business.
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