I-Team: From Farm to Fork - 8 News NOW

I-Team: From Farm to Fork

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LAS VEGAS -- Outbreaks of foodborne illnesses from commercially produced meat and produce have claimed dozens of lives, this year alone. Yet some federal and state laws seem to favor "big agriculture" in the name of food safety.

As a result, many local growers find themselves on the losing end of a David versus Goliath food fight.

With all the uncertainty about what goes in to what we eat, there is a growing movement of folks who seek out locally-produced food. Yet here in southern Nevada, it is illegal to buy some ingredients right off the farm.

Try to spend more than a few minutes at the Quail Hollow farm in Overton, Nevada without grazing through the rows. Farmers Laura and Monte Bledsoe enjoy -- no, insist -- on sharing their bounty. And in that spirit, they hosted their first Farm to Fork dinner just a few weeks ago and

"We sold out," said Laura Bledsoe. "There was huge interest for people who wanted to connect back with the land and have a great meal. That's how it started."

That was until Mary Oakes with the Southern Nevada Health District showed up to issue a temporary permit for the public event.

The Bledsoes say they didn't have a good feeling the moment Oakes arrived.

"She basically told us that we had to stop the event, that we could not have it," Monte Bledsoe said.

During her inspection, Oakes deemed produce picked from the farm and prepared by a chef in Las Vegas outside of safe food temperature ranges. She also said fresh meat raised at Quail Hollow and on a nearby ranch was unfit, because it was not inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"I was just destroyed by that. All of these animals are literally just going to be thrown in the trash," Laura said.

The Bledsoes argued to keep the food for their private use or even as feed for their animals. Oakes' response was to trash the food and cover it in bleach.

Susan Labay with the Southern Nevada Health District is Oakes' supervisor. She says it is normal practice to bleach food. 

"We did not feel that they were going to dispose of the food and we did not want to take the chance that that food would potentially be served to the public," Labay said.

Not even an informed public, like the Bledsoes' diners. Federal and state law requires, in the name of food safety, that all meat for sale be processed at a USDA inspected facility. There are no facilities in southern Nevada.

"I don't necessarily have the choices that everyone thinks we might," LaBay said. "I don't necessarily agree with every law that I have to regulate, but I can't choose how to apply that law. That is already decided for me."

On the advice of legal counsel, the Bledsoes eventually asked Oakes to leave. She called the police. According to Metro Police, the responding officers found no cause to intervene.

"She left in a huff, making quite a scene. She did leave, nonetheless, and with that we got cooking," Laura said.

A state-issued certificate allowed the Bledsoes to serve new produce and eggs from the farm. So, the harvest began anew.

"At that point, the evening really became magical. The unifying experience of all this, everyone joining together, and it really did make a very meaningful evening for all of us," Monte said.

The husband and wife farmers now see their calling as a cause - to advocate for food choice from a place of bounty.

Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund

"We want to bring awareness to the battle and to the consumers as well that these things are going on," Laura said.

Small farmers across the country are facing the same kinds of challenges experienced by the Bledsoes.

So, Laura and Monte are working with local and state lawmakers to try to strike a balance that protects public health while providing food choice.

Interestingly, had the Bledsoes sold memberships to a supper club that night instead of tickets for dinner, it would've been considered a private event and not subject to the health district inspection.

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