Jan. 19, 2013
Arlin Bender said his troubles with state meat inspectors began when he placed a small ad in a country newspaper for his services as a "butcher, baker and bologna maker."
The Clark County farmer was trained as a butcher in the Mennonite religious community that's known for its livestock slaughtering and meat-handling skills.
So in 2011, when Bender moved to Wisconsin from upstate New York, it seemed natural for him to continue practicing his trade by advertising to process venison.
That, by itself, wouldn't have gotten him into trouble. But what irked investigators at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection was that Bender allegedly violated rules pertaining to the slaughtering of domestic livestock and processing of livestock meat.
He didn't have the required license or registration, officials said, and last July he allegedly slaughtered a farmer's injured cow to be used as food in return for cash and the animal's hide. Investigators also claimed Bender was operating a meat processing facility at his home without a license.
There's been a lengthy investigation and charges of violating regulations that's drawn national attention from activists who claim the farmer has been bullied by government officials.
Bender says regulators aggressively pursued him after he placed the ad in the newspaper.
"The little bit of beef we were butchering, and a few pigs, was mainly for our Mennonite people," he said. "Then we had a couple of neighbors, who are not Mennonite, ask if I would help them. Do you have to have a license to do good for somebody?"
Bender has won sympathy from various groups that also believe farmers should have the right to sell raw, unpasteurized milk to the general public - a practice that's banned in Wisconsin and has resulted in some high-profile legal battles.
"It gets to the heart of something known as 'food rights.' More and more, people are consciously going outside of what I call the factory food system to get their food because they don't trust the system," said David Gumpert, who is familiar with the Bender case and wrote a book, "The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America's Battle Over Food Rights."
Court records show Bender had a contentious relationship with state investigators - at one point allegedly accusing them of having "Mafia connections" and telling them he didn't trust the government.
Some of that could have been just angry talk from a farmer confronted by regulators.
"I don't think he was trying to make a political statement. The state really came down hard on him from the beginning," said Gumpert, adding state investigators angered the farmer when they put red tags on food in his walk-in freezer - essentially keeping him from using the food or risk paying thousands of dollars in fines.
Bender has heart trouble and collapsed the next day, Gumpert said.
Investigators say Bender twice refused to let them carry out their inspection duties at his farm, where he allegedly made meat products without the necessary state approvals.
The timing was bad for one of the inspections, Gumpert said, because the farmer and others in his Mennonite community were preparing for the funeral of a 2-year-old child who had drowned. Friends and family had come from all over the country for the funeral and some were staying at Bender's home.
They didn't want inspectors "prowling around" at the time, Gumpert said.
State officials declined to comment on the case that could be headed to trial in March. If he's found guilty of violating regulations, Bender faces up to a $1,000 fine. More importantly, it could prevent him from ever getting a license for a meat processing facility.
Mad cow concernsThe slaughter of injured cattle has become a major issue since the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease, a rare but fatal brain condition in cattle that could be transmitted to humans.
Businesses that are licensed to slaughter animals can't do so unless the animal appears healthy and can walk on its own, according to Paul Pierce, director of field services for the state's Meat Safety and Inspection Bureau.
Wisconsin has nearly 300 licensed meat processing facilities, including some small, farm-based operations, according to state officials.
It's a way for farmers to supplement their income, and it becomes more popular when the economy sours, according to Pierce.
"We work with people on how they're going to meet the standards. We don't want to be in court with anybody either, because it takes up a lot of time and resources," he said.
Bender, a butcher for more than 40 years, moved to Wisconsin from New York to be closer to one of his sons and run a farm in Unity, about 20 miles northwest of Marshfield in north central Wisconsin.
He learned his trade from his grandparents.
Some of his troubles stemmed from accepting $30 for slaughtering the injured cow and not having a registered mobile slaughtering business.
It wasn't a health and safety issue for Bender, said his attorney, Elizabeth Rich.
For almost a year, Bender has been under a temporary court order to not slaughter animals other than his own. His attorneys have argued the order goes beyond what the law requires.
"If Mr. Bender receives hides as barter for mobile processing, he has not violated the law. If Mr. Bender slaughters an animal on the premises of a person who owns the animal to be slaughtered, and the resulting product is for the exclusive use of the owners, members of the owner's household, and his or her nonpaying guests, he has not violated the law," Rich wrote in a court document.
She wants to settle the case without going to trial, in one agreement that would address fines and result in Bender getting the state registration or license he needs.
The farmer, near retirement age, says he just wants to practice his trade and not fight with regulators.
He said he's willing to follow the rules and wants to get the appropriate credentials from the state.
Bender also feels strongly about assisting his neighbors, as part of the Mennonite tradition, when they need help slaughtering livestock.
"I would like to be able to help people without being considered a criminal," he said.