In an ambitious legal maneuver, Alta-Dena Certified Dairy is seeking $110-million in damages from its leading critic for allegedly making libelous, slanderous and defamatory statements about the firm's certified raw milk products at a congressional hearing.
The company filed suit in Marin County Superior Court earlier this month against John C. Bolton, a San Francisco physician, and the Chicago-based American Academy of Pediatrics, which Bolton often represents. The court action mirrors another suit filed by the City of Industry dairy in October against Bolton and the academy for similarly critical statements.
Alta-Dena maintains that continuing criticism of its certified raw milk products, primarily as a result of associations with the potentially lethal Salmonella dublin bacteria, is inaccurate and has caused "loss of customers . . . business reputation . . . and injury to . . . trade and occupation."
The current suit centers upon statements made by Bolton, on behalf of the academy, at a hearing of the House health and environment subcommittee chaired by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) held at UCLA in February.
The Bolton comment, reported in The Times Food Section, was: "What we are looking at here is a toxic waste problem. (Raw certified milk) is a product that can be contaminated with a toxic waste or intermittently contaminated. Should this remain on the market?"
Another Bolton statement made at the hearing, which Alta-Dena officials felt defamed their company, was a theoretical recommendation for wording on warning labels for all certified raw milk. Bolton said the warning should state, "This product contains potentially lethal bacteria."
"(Bolton's) statements are so false and untrue (and) are so unscientific that they are without basis in fact," said Raymond A. Novell, Alta-Dena attorney. "He makes crazy statements and should be responsible for them. . . . He has said that people have died (as a result of drinking raw milk), that it's akin to toxic waste and that the slaughter will go on if (raw milk continues to be) sold. . . . Dr. Bolton does not have the right to make false statements (such as these)."
Bolton has declined to comment on any aspect of the Alta-Dena suit against him on the advice of his attorney. Nevertheless, he did say, "Every time I make a speech (Alta-Dena attorney) Ray Novell is out in the audience with a tape recorder."
The American Academy of Pediatrics designated one of its past presidents to respond to the Alta-Dena charges.
"The only comment I have is that everything I've seen attributed to John Bolton is scientifically sound and accurate," said Dr. Paul F. Wehrle, director of pediatrics for the USC School of Medicine. "The academy's position is that of favoring pasteurization of milk because of the overwhelming evidence that it is a safer product than raw milk."
Alta-Dena has battled with federal and state health officials over the raw milk safety issue since the 1960s. Government health agencies have maintained that unpasteurized milk can be a vehicle for S. dublin , a bacteria known to cause diarrhea, nausea and fever. This particularly invasive strain of salmonella can also prove fatal in infants, the elderly and those with impaired immune systems, such as cancer patients.
Alta-Dena raw milk has been recalled from store shelves more than 20 times in the past two decades because routine government laboratory tests discovered the presence of salmonella bacteria. Even so, the company maintains that its products are free from contaminants and that no one has ever become ill from consuming Alta-Dena certified raw milk.
The firm's legal strategy has employed court action in the past in order to vindicate the reputation of its raw milk products. For instance, the dairy filed a $180-million suit in 1982 that sought damages from California state officials because of financial losses inflicted upon the company by the continuing recalls. That suit was dropped a year later because Alta-Dena and the state agreed to work on a mutually accepted lab test to determine the presence of harmful bacteria in raw milk.
In addition to seeking damages for the critical comments, the dairy is suing to recoup $10 million in specific damages because of losses in sales and customers. Although acknowledging this aspect of the suit may be difficult to substantiate, Novell said that losses can be proven, if necessary, by numerous letters the dairy has received from consumers who no longer use the company's products because of adverse publicity.
Novell says that sales have dipped after newspaper articles have appeared or government hearings have been held on raw milk's safety. However, Alta-Dena's overall sales of raw milk and raw milk products has been on a continual upswing since 1977, increasing about 40% in eight years. Current production is 17,000 gallons daily of raw milk compared to 83,000 gallons of pasteurized milk, according to Novell.