Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Nixa family and USDA
It started out as a hobby, a way for the Dollarhite family in Dixa, Mo., to teach a teenage son responsibility. Like a lemonade stand.
But now, selling a few hundred rabbits over two years has provoked the heavy hand of the federal government to the tune of a $90,643 fine. The fine was levied more than a year after authorities contacted family members, prompting them to immediately halt their part-time business and liquidate their equipment.
The Dollarhite’s story, originally picked up by local Missouri blogger Bob McCarthy, has turned into a call to arms for critics of the government’s reach and now has both Democratic and Republican lawmakers vowing to intervene.
John and Judy Dollarhite began selling rabbit meat by the pound in 2006, and as pets to neighbors and friends in 2008.
Raised on the three-acre lot on which their home sits, the rabbits were heralded by local experts for their quality and kept in pristine conditions.
When a local pet store asked them to supply their pet rabbits, the Dollarhites had no idea they would be running afoul of an obscure federal regulation that prohibits selling more than $500 worth of rabbits to a pet store without a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Under the law, pet stores are exempt from regulation.
It wasn’t until April 19, though, that the Dollarhites received official word from USDA.
A letter from Sarah Conant, the chief of the Animal Health and Welfare Enforcement branch of USDA’s enforcement division, said, “Our investigation shows that you have violated the United States Code of Federal Regulations … You may … settle this matter by paying $90,643.”
A draft settlement agreement attached to the letter specified that the Dollarhites had, according to USDA’s investigation, sold 619 rabbits in 56 transactions over almost two years.
The Dollarhites told USDA they aren’t accepting the “offer.”
“My client rejects that proposal,” wrote their attorney, Richard Anderson, in a May 19 letter, noting that according to USDA’s own literature, its 6,000 annual enforcement cases average “a penalty of $333.33 per case, and yet you contend it would be appropriate my client tender a penalty of $90,643.00.”
One Washington lobbyist for the industrial farming sector said the penalty was ludicrous. The rabbit sales “are on the scale of a high school 4-H project,” the source said.
USDA spokesman Sacks said the $90,643 fine “looks curious to say the least.” But he insisted it was necessary for USDA to punish violators to ensure businesses across the country register, putting them on the USDA’s radar screen for inspections and possible enforcement.
“This is the only way we can ensure these animals are getting the care they need,” Sacks said.
Meanwhile, Missouri lawmakers Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and Republican Rep. Billy Long have contacted the Dollarhites, saying they’ll help intervene with USDA. And a Tea Party group is planning a protest at a USDA office in Ozark, Mo., office on Wednesday.
By by selling to pet stores for resale, the humble Dollarhites became “wholesale breeders of pet animals,” said Dave Sacks, a spokesman for USDA who defended the fine, even while admitting it “looks curious” to the average person.
That’s especially so since the Dollarhites face no accusation they mistreated any animals. Instead, they committed what’s called in regulatory parlance a “paperwork violation” under the Animal Welfare Act, a 1966 law intended to prevent the abuse of animals.