Federal agents and local police conducted an armed raid on a farm cooperative in Venice, Ca. last week, resulting in three arrests. Authorities seized $70,000 in raw organic food and poured an estimated 800 gallons of milk down the drain, but there was no evidence that any of the products were contaminated.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) joined forces with FBI and local officials (a total of five government agencies) to bust Rawesome, a private member raw food club. Rawesome owner James Stewart and two farmers connected to the co-op were charged with 13 counts, including conspiracy to sell raw milk without a license.
Unpasteurized dairy products are legal in California, but the Los Angeles District Attorney says that applicable licenses and permits are required. But Rawesome isn’t exactly a grocery store. It doesn’t sell to the general public; instead the facility is used to distribute food from local farms directly to its members.
The FDA raid is said to protect public health, but Rawesome members say that authorities are violating their rights to privately contract with farmers.
As concern grows over conventional factory farming practices, an increasing number of consumers are seeking raw milk directly from small family farms, despite FDA warnings. Rawesome members must sign a waiver stating that they understand the risks associated with the food they purchase, but their greatest risk appears to be overzealous law enforcement. Officials raided Rawesome last summer with guns drawn, and the FDA has continued to investigate the co-op over the past year.
The attack on Rawesome isn’t unique. Over the last few years, the FDA has been targeting small, raw milk producers across the country. In June, President Obama’s food safety chief and former Monsanto lawyer Michael R. Taylor defended the actions, stating that the campaign was a “public health duty."
According to the FDA, the manufacture and sale of unpasteurized milk products poses a significant risk of pathogenic contamination—including salmonella, listeria, e-coli, staphylococcus aureus and tuberculosis. But evidence suggests that the real risks associated with unpasteurized milk hardly justify the time or tax dollars devoted to such raids.
A recently released study from the Centers for Disease Control said that people are about thirty-five thousand times more likely to get sick from foods such as spinach, peanut butter, and eggs than they are from consuming raw milk. Similarly, a report from the Weston A. Price Foundation found that between 1980 and 2005, there were ten times more illnesses resulting from pasteurized milk than its raw counterpart.
“It is irresponsible for senior national government officials to oppose raw milk, claiming that it is inherently hazardous,” said study author Dr. Ted Beals in a statement. “There is no justification for opposing the sale of raw milk or warning against its inclusion in the diets of children and adults.”
“Hey hey, FDA—don’t take our milk away,” chanted a crowd of about 150 gathered outside the Los Angeles Courthouse last week protesting the raid on Rawesome. Demonstrators spoke out against the violation of private property rights and freedom of food choice, but many also expressed concern over the misuse of state and federal resources to wage these aggressive campaigns. Given US and California debt problems, it’s puzzling that so much funding and attention is being focused on raw milk. One protestor held a sign which read, “Raid crack houses, not private food clubs.”
Rawesome owner James Stewart now faces a $30,000 bail bond. He can no longer sell raw dairy without a license, and Rawesome is now subject to an investigation at any time without a warrant. Sharon Palmer, the owner of Healthy Family Farms who supplied raw goat milk products to Rawesome, has had her farm raided several times. Her arraignment in this case is expected Monday.