By Riki Shore
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).
“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.”
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:
- LA County District Attorney’s News Release on the arrests
- Editorial letter sent by a college professor to the District Attorney
- The Rawesome Controversy and the Raw Food Rabbit Hole by Jennifer Sharpe of KPCC
- Mennonite farmer Mark Nolt’s case similar to Rawesome’s story
- San Jose farmers Mike and Jane Hulme’s herd share case
- And, for those in need of comic relief, there’s always The Colbert Report