Conservatives Milk Story of Amish Farm Tied to Fatal Listeria Outbreak

Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty

Viewers of Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show were greeted Monday with dire news. The Biden administration, Carlson said, had launched a war on small farmers, starting with a U.S. Marshals “raid” on an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania named Amos Miller.

“This is one of those stories that is kind of hard to believe,” Carlson said. “They’re going after an Amish farmer.”

Later in the show, conservative reporter Jeremy Loffredo, who has championed Miller’s cause, claimed the farmer’s plight was meant to send a message to his fellow organic farmers.

“They’re coming after Amos to set an example,” Loffredo said. “They’re coming after an independent successful farmer who takes out the government middlemen and provides food directly to the community and his people.”

“Maybe if he promises to put more chemicals in the milk to turn kids trans, they’ll lay off,” Carlson said.

The Amish farmer case has become a cause célèbre on the right-wing internet, a David-and-Goliath tale about a farmer who just wants to grow his food the right way battling an overreaching federal government. The story trended on Twitter on Tuesday. The far-right social media network Gab joined Miller’s fight too, praising him in an email to its members as “an example for us all” and a model of “what true Christian Nationalism looks like.”

But the real story is more complicated. For years, Miller has refused to abide by basic food laws, even after raw milk produced at his farm was suspected to have killed someone.

Carlson’s show portrayed food inspectors and the Biden administration as bent on running the Amish farmer out of business. But Miller’s own attorney, Steven Lafuente, told The Daily Beast that federal investigators and lawyers have “bent over backwards” to try to keep Miller in business, even as the farmer disobeyed court orders and fell under the sway of the anti-government “sovereign citizen” movement.

“The stuff that Amos has done—he should have been in jail a long time ago,” Lafuente told The Daily Beast.

Miller didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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The talk of a raid comes at a new period of conservative anxiety about armed federal agents, amid the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago and a bogus claim that Biden plans to hire 87,000 gun-toting IRS agents. But Lafuente isn’t sure what farm “raid” Carlson is referring to, saying there hasn’t been such an incident recently on Miller’s property.

“He wasn’t raided,” Lafuente said.

Instead, the lawyer suspects Miller and his supporters are highlighting his case in the right-wing media in a cynical ploy to raise money from conservatives to fund a court-imposed bill for $305,000—a figure Miller must pay by September or face jail time.

“I hate to say it, but that’s probably a smart move,” Lafuente said.

Miller’s clashes with USDA food inspectors trace back to 2014, according to government court filings, when two people in Florida and California were sickened with listeria after drinking raw milk, with the Florida person ultimately dying from it.

After the deceased person’s family members told FDA investigators that the person had recently drank raw milk from Miller’s farm, FDA investigators purchased a batch of raw chocolate milk from Miller and discovered listeria there, too. Laboratory tests confirmed that the California and Florida listeria strains were genetically similar to the batch from Miller’s farm, prompting the FDA to rule that Miller’s milk was the “likely” source of the listeria outbreak.

Concern that more health problems could emerge from Miller’s farm prompted regulators at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to push for Miller to have his animals slaughtered at a facility monitored by federal inspectors, a requirement that applies to nearly all meat produced in the country. But Miller refused, claiming that the citric wash used to clean the meat at many slaughterhouses would somehow affect its nutritional value.

While Carlson portrayed the federal crackdown on Miller as an invention of the Biden administration, the legal case against Miller actually began in 2017, under Donald Trump. Food inspectors struggled to convince Miller to abide by the law—either by registering as a slaughterhouse himself, or by using a natural meat cleanser of his own devising at a nearby Amish slaughterhouse.

But Lafuente claims that every solution regulators and the judge in the case approved of eventually fell apart on Miller’s end, often because of his kneejerk opposition to federal regulation. The court even allowed Miller to sell the products of animals slaughtered outside of federal oversight as the case dragged on, only for inspectors visiting the farm to discover that Miller had once again violated court orders by slaughtering more animals on his own.

“It’s kind of like a kid—‘I don’t want to play with you because you’re the government,’” Lafuente said.

Miller has tried to avoid regulations by turning his farm into a sort of membership association, with his farm’s products sold to “members” who pay $35 to join. But while Miller’s supporters portray his farm as a small organization whose membership scheme should leave him free from oversight, his business still sells across state lines in sizable quantities. Over three months in 2016, for example, Miller sold roughly 7 tons of red meat and poultry products for roughly $124,000.

Lafuente said his client means well, but has been duped by a series of anti-government figures into thinking he can legally avoid federal regulations.

“He’s not a bad guy, he’s just very impressionable,” Lafuente said. “You can bend his ear and he’ll do whatever you say.”

First, Miller paid a man in Texas for legal papers that would create the food association plan, a scheme Miller later admitted in a deposition had no legal force. Last year, Miller escalated things further, affiliating himself with a sovereign citizen-style group called Prairie Star National. The group quickly moved to fire Lafuente as Miller’s lawyer.

Sovereign citizen groups and ideologies can vary, but they usually rely on nonsense legal tactics they believe can help their believers wriggle out of courtroom trouble. In reality, the maneuvers usually end up enraging judges. Miller, for example, has started filing court documents titled as “authenticated documents” under the “Hague Convention” and describing himself as the “real party in interest”—fake legalisms that have only served to drag out the case.

“They filed more stupid stuff that’s just gibberish,” Lafuente said. “All it’s doing is getting Amos in deeper and deeper trouble.”

Lafuente wanted to quit the case after the sovereign citizens got involved, but he instead became locked with Miller in an unusual arrangement. While Lafuente tried to withdraw as Miller’s sole counsel in 2021, a federal judge refused to allow him to leave the case.

For now, Lafuente has been court-ordered to represent Miller, even though the farmer wants to fire him. Lafuente told The Daily Beast he’s trying to convince Miller that the government doesn’t want to shut down his farm.

“If they wanted to put you out of business from the milk, they would’ve done it a long time ago,” Lafuente said.

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