The nation's only producer of raw certified milk has been unable to market its unpasteurized products since late October because herds the dairy depends upon for its milk supplies are under government-ordered quarantine.
State health officials have forbidden Claremont-based Stueve's Natural to sell raw milk as long as its sister company's six herds show signs of three serious infections that can be transmitted to humans. The quarantine is unprecedented and has knocked a full line of raw certified dairy products--butter, cream, cottage cheese--off the market.
Four herds, owned by Stueve Brothers Farms, have tested positive for brucellosis, a relatively rare disease that was believed eradicated from California in 1969. Another Stueve Brothers herd is contaminated with the deadly Listeria monocytogenes and the sixth shows signs of salmonella.
Before being sold to the public, all milk produced by these cows must first be pasteurized so that any pathogens will be destroyed. Under normal circumstances, Stueve's Natural markets as much as 10,000 gallons of raw certified milk each day. An estimated 100,000 Southern Californians consume the product.
"It is unprecedented that we are off the market this long," said Boyd Clark, general manager of Stueve's Natural. "It's because the same few people in the (California) health services department want to see raw certified milk banned and eliminate consumers' freedom of choice."
(In August, the Stueve family completed its sale of Alta-Dena Dairies to a French firm. However, a full line of raw certified milk products are now marketed under the Stueve's Natural label while the herds are separately owned by Stueve Brothers Farms.)
The findings of brucella bacteria are of particular concern and have led to the formation of a joint federal and state task force designed to eliminate the bacteria in dairy cows in the Chino area, home to 10 infected herds, including the Stueve cows.
"We take this very seriously," said Lawrence Vanderwagen, animal health branch chief for the state's Food and Agriculture Department in Sacramento. "The cattle (population) is so concentrated in the Chino valley that it's a nightmare to control the spread of brucellosis in any one herd. They keep reinfecting themselves."
Federal officials have made eliminating brucellosis a national health priority. Eradicating the disease is also important to California officials: The presence of the infection means that California dairy cows cannot be transported or sold across state lines.
Brucellosis, which is potentially lethal, causes flu-like symptoms in humans including fever, chills, muscle aches and headaches. In 1989, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, there were 95 reported cases of the disease in the country, concentrated primarily in Texas (23 cases) and California (21 cases).
Vanderwagen, however, did not link any of the recent brucellosis cases to the action taken against Stueve's Natural. "For a number of years now these proven cases are usually recent arrivals from Mexico or the Mediterranean area who have consumed raw goat cheese or raw goat milk," he said.
Before their milk can be sold as raw certified, the brucella-infected herds must test negative for the bacteria during a 120-day period. Vanderwagen said the earliest possible date for such approval would be sometime in February.
The presence of L. monocytogenes in one Stueve's Natural herds has also troubled state officials. "We are somewhat surprised by the L. monocytogenes findings," said Richard Tate, milk and dairy foods control branch chief for the state's Food and Agriculture Department.
The herd infected with listeria cannot be used as a source of raw certified milk until the cows test negative for the bacteria during a 10-day period. The same applies for the herd contaminated with salmonella. The latter is a more common infection: Over the past few decades salmonella contamination forced the state to recall raw certified milk dozens of times.
Some consumers, upset about the absence of Stueve's raw milk, have written to grocers and government officials. Clark, of Stueve's Natural, said that 6,000 petition signatures have been delivered to state officials urging that raw certified milk be allowed back on the market.
Trader Joe's, a major outlet for the product line, has posted a sign urging raw milk advocates to write to the Governor. "It is simply a matter of choice," said Bob Johnson, a senior buyer for South Pasadena-based Trader Joe's. "We don't support one side or another. If it is not legal it is out of our control."
Stueve's Natural is currently appealing a 1989 Alameda County Superior Court decision ordering the firm to carry a warning on all its raw certified milk products. The cautionary statement reads, in part: "This milk may contain dangerous bacteria."