A decade-old argument over whether the raw milk produced by Alta-Dena Certified Dairy contains illness-causing bacteria was rekindled Tuesday when a coalition of consumer groups and health professionals filed a suit accusing the firm of "false and misleading" advertising about the safety of its raw milk.
The litigation filed in Northern California comes amid a growing debate over whether Alta-Dena's raw milk herds played any role in the recent epidemic believed to have been generated by dangerous bacteria found in some of the Mexican-style cheese produced by Jalisco Mexican Food Products of Artesia.
Although underscoring that raw milk produced for public consumption was free of any dangerous bacteria, Alta-Dena chief executive Harold Stueve nevertheless recently shut down the raw milk production of one of his herds rather than, he said, face a possible product recall.
Since the mid-1970s, City of Industry-based Alta-Dena has been the focus of debate among health officials and private interest groups over whether its unpasteurized raw milk contains Salmonella dublin , a bacterial infection found in cows that can be passed on to humans.
Stueve has steadfastly maintained that his dairy produces the cleanest milk in the world and that the charges are a product of a conspiracy against raw milk.
On Tuesday, in a suit filed in Alameda County Superior Court in Hayward, the Consumers Union, the Gray Panthers, a senior citizens activist group, and the American Public Health Assn. asked for an immediate halt to Alta-Dena advertising, which, they said, states that its raw milk products are "safe, healthy, wholesome and pure" and especially suitable for infants, the elderly and invalids.
Claim Bacteria Found
The suit claims that, since 1974, S. dublin and other disease-producing bacteria have been found more than 200 times in Alta-Dena milk samples studied by federal, state and local officials.
The groups demanded that the dairy, California's biggest distributor of raw milk, place a warning on its raw milk products telling the public that they may contain certain "dangerous bacteria."
In response , Stueve said he was unaware of any ads specifically appealing to the young or the elderly.
'Safest in the World'
"I don't say (raw milk) is for the young, old, sick or anything like that," Stueve said. "It's for everyone . . . the safest in the world, bar none."
Stueve decided to temporarily end the raw milk production of one of his herds last Friday, when it was revealed that an experimental milk-testing program at the University of Vermont had tentatively turned up potentially dangerous bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes , in samples from the Alta-Dena herd. It was this bacteria that health officials have connected with the recent epidemic in California and that was found in Jalisco soft cheese products.
Stueve said there was nothing wrong with the raw milk herd and asserted that he took the action rather than get involved in a debate with public officials over a product recall.
Dr. Shirley L. Fannin, head of Los Angeles County's communicable disease control program, had written a memo to state agriculture officials requesting that raw milk production be shut down until the completion of federal tests.