Raw Dairy Proves A Risky Business

August 12, 2011

in Food News

By Riki Shore

Rawesome is Closed

The Rawesome door is locked shut, with a sign informing members of the raid and arrests

By now you’ve probably heard of the arrests of Sharon Palmer and Virgina Bloch of Healthy Family Farms in Santa Paula, CA, and James Stewart of Rawesome in Venice, CA. The three were taken to jail following a multi-agency armed raid and a year-long investigation of the production and sale of raw goat milk products.

We buy all of our eggs and poultry from Healthy Family Farms at the South Pasadena Farmer’s Market. The guy who works the stand, Juan Carlos, is always friendly and professional, and we’ve never been disappointed in the products. It caught my eye then to see Healthy Family Farms in the news with 13 charges against them, one of which is conspiracy. Conspiracy to what, I wondered? Sell raw milk?

The sale of raw milk is actually legal in the state of California – in fact, there’s a raw dairy stand right next to the Healthy Family Farm stand at our market – but it’s also extremely expensive to get certified by the state.

Mark McAfee, the owner/operator of Organic Pastures in the San Joaquin Valley, estimates that it would cost upwards of five million dollars to establish a new raw dairy operation on the same scale as Organic Pastures (their products are sold in 400 stores).

Get Raw Milk

Organic Pasture's van at the farmer's market bears their slogan "get RAW milk"

“The government in California places huge barriers to entry on small farmers in California, and we need small farmers badly”, states McAfee. The state requires a special license, regular inspections and an in-house creamery – none of which Healthy Family Farms has undertaken.

To get around the cost of these regulations, some small farmers enter into contractual agreements with their customers. Farmer Joel Salatin describes the arrangement “wherein a person buys a portion of the herd in exchange for custodial care of the animals and a portion of the production….[This] is not a sale and therefore makes an end run around typical regulatory language”.

Several farmers have garnered national attention for their herd share agreements, as they’re called, which some states contend are illegal (California is one such state, while Colorado is not). In these contractual agreements, based on the Old English agister laws, the consumer purchases a goat, or part of a goat, and boards it at a small farm. The small farmer is responsible for caring for the animal, and for all aspects of producing dairy products that the animal owner, or consumer, then collects.

Salatin notes, “The right of private contract, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and also imbedded in traditional British jurisprudence (seedbed of all American rights) has been impinged routinely by regulators.”

It also seems to be the root of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s case against James Stewart and Sharon Palmer. Rawesome is run as a private buying club, not a retail store. It was only open two days per week, and all customers were members who had signed a contractual agreement in order to be part of the club. In other words, you couldn’t just wander in off the street and buy a pint of raw milk.

We don’t drink milk in our house, raw or otherwise, and we don’t actually use a lot of dairy products. I started to wonder why someone would want raw milk and go so out of their way to get it. Mark McAfee, the owner of Organic Pastures, enlightened me.

McAfee studied pre-med in college and worked as an EMT for 13 years before starting his own dairy operation. He says during his time as an EMT he saw all manner of health problems, from obesity to diabetes to immune system failure. When his grandparents left him 600 acres of pastureland in 1999, he decided to start a raw dairy operation in a commitment to the “prevention of disease through nutrition”. Of commercially-processed pasteurized milk, McAfee says, “pasteurization is an excuse for filthy milk”.

Organic Pastures’ milk is chilled, tested and bottled. There is no heating involved, so the milk must be exceedingly clean before going into bottles. The standards the state sets for this operation are stringent, and rightfully so. The milk must contain less than 10 coliforms and 0 pathogens. In contrast, pasteurized milk can contain all sorts of bacteria, from E. Coli to Salmonella, before bottling, because of the assumption that the heating process of pasteurization will kill it all off.

The problem is, the heat kills the good bacteria along with the bad, which means you’re drinking a much less nutritious product when you drink pasteurized milk.

Sally Fallon Morell, the President of the Weston A. Price Foundation, states that “compared to pasteurized milk, raw milk is more digestible, builds stronger bones and teeth, and can be very beneficial for asthma, allergies and skin conditions. For babies with failure to thrive, raw milk can be an absolute life saver.”

McAfee also attests to his customers’ health benefits. He says he routinely receives feedback from mothers who say their child’s asthma or ear infections are much better than when they were drinking pasteurized milk.

So why, if drinking raw milk is such a boon to our health, would the state of California fund a year-long investigation and an armed raid on a raw milk seller? Surely, I thought, one of the Rawesome members had complained or gotten sick?

But it turns out that the only food borne illness to break the news last week came from ground turkey contaminated with salmonella and produced by the agribusiness giant Cargill. One of Cargill’s customers actually died and yet, as far as I can tell, no one from Cargill is charged with criminal activity. Cargill isn’t being investigated, raided at gunpoint, or shut down. So why James Stewart and Rawesome?

Back to the legal kernel of the case: Stewart was selling raw milk that had not been inspected. Or was he?

The Rawesome membership agreement would contend that each member was buying a portion of the goat herd, not technically buying the goat milk. I asked McAfee where the law forbidding herd sharing in California was written. He let me know that it isn’t written anywhere. “Their (the DA’s) actions are based on an interpretation of the law”. James Stewart and the members of Rawesome have a different interpretation.

Joel Salatin asserts that “perhaps the most fundamental question of human rights is my right to choose what to feed my internal community of 3 trillion bacterial beings who convert ingested food fuel into bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. That someone else would be arrogant and disrespectful enough to assume that they should be able to determine what I will or will not ingest is fundamentally Food Enslavement – indeed it is to suggest that they own my body. The government’s track record on the food agenda is outrageous – pushing chemical fertilizer, chemical herbicides, pesticides, DDT, transgenic modification, feeding dead cows to cows and giving us bovine spongiform encephalopathy, cloning – the list is horrendous. To assume that Coca Cola, Twinkies and Fruit Loops is safe while raw milk is dangerous assaults both a reasonable conscience and the science of biology.”

Healthy Family Farm

The Healthy Family Farm stand at the South Pasadena Farmer's Market where eggs and poultry are sold

At the moment, Rawesome remains closed, while Healthy Family Farms continues to sell their egg and poultry products at farmer’s markets.

Suffice to say that if you want raw milk in Los Angeles this week, you should head to a market that sells Organic Pastures.

Further reading for those of you who want more:


Larry August 12, 2011 at 9:59 am

The only reason I can see is that the agency has to prove its’ existance for its own funding, because it can’t go after the large agri monopolies, so it attacks the little guy. Looks like a power play for government funding as each agency has to create work in order to not lose that funding for the next year, or even the funding earmarked for the current one. I drink raw milk and love it. reminds me of the milk I drank which was delivered to my house in 1950; the milk and eggs at my family’s small grocery store. The farm fresh eggs I buy now have hard shell, thick white, and golden orange/yellow yoke. This travesty of the justice system is sad and angering.

Gina August 13, 2011 at 1:30 am

This was so well written. Thank you. Raw milk saved my life. Gave me my life back. And it does taste “clean.” There is nothing to compare to a glass of satisfying grassfed raw milk. The pasteurized stuff makes my face grimace just thinking about it.

People need to understand what it can mean to be a shareowner in a farmer’s herd. A good farmer on a smaller farm involves customers in knowing all about the herd. I know a farmer who has his owners help or visit the farm. He has the customers actually get to know the individual cows and their personalities. Just criminal. So it can be argued that the shareowner has direct involvement or responsibility in caring for and stewarding the cow or goat.

Kristen Papac August 14, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Now that you have figured out that the case against them is about raw milk, what do you do with the information as a customer of HFF that there is eveidence of fraud: http://www.thecompletepatient.com/journal/2011/8/14/as-the-government-dribbles-out-new-accusations-in-rawesome-c.html (please read the comments as well)
and this one as well:

Going forward: Let the raw milk advocates advocate. This case is not their hill to die on. Let the farmers/ranchers who are doing it right and by the book benefit from this fiasco. This is what a free market does. We consumers need to be protected from farmer fraud. I spoke with Diana, the manager of the MarVista Farmer’s Market. She told me that she had just met with other Farmer’s Market managers to figure out what to do about fraud. They are forming a volunteer committee to investigate fraud, which I will definitely help see happen. I go to great lengths to buy my pastured meat and eggs. It pisses me off that this farmer could have ripped many health conscious good people off, like yourself.

admin@threesquares August 15, 2011 at 9:01 am

Kristen, thanks for the comment and links. I’m curious, where do you source your meet and eggs? HFF customers reading this might benefit from knowing.

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