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Raw-food raid highlights a hunger

Some people balk at restrictions on selling unprocessed milk and other foods. 'How can we not have the freedom to choose what we eat?' one says. Regulators say the rules exist for safety and fairness.

July 25, 2010|By P.J. Huffstutter, Los Angeles Times

With no warning one weekday morning, investigators entered an organic grocery with a search warrant and ordered the hemp-clad workers to put down their buckets of mashed coconut cream and to step away from the nuts.

Then, guns drawn, four officers fanned out across Rawesome Foods in Venice. Skirting past the arugula and peering under crates of zucchini, they found the raid's target inside a walk-in refrigerator: unmarked jugs of raw milk.

"I still can't believe they took our yogurt," said Rawesome volunteer Sea J. Jones, a few days after the raid. "There's a medical marijuana shop a couple miles away, and they're raiding us because we're selling raw dairy products?"

Cartons of raw goat and cow milk and blocks of unpasteurized goat cheese were among the groceries seized in the June 30 raid by federal, state and local authorities — the latest salvo in the heated food fight over what people can put in their mouths.

On one side are government regulators, who say they are enforcing rules designed to protect consumers from unsafe foods and to provide a level playing field for producers. On the other side are " healthy food" consumers — a faction of foodies who challenge government science and seek food in its most pure form.

They want almonds cracked fresh from the shell, not those run through a federally mandated pasteurization process that uses either heat or a chemical to kill off salmonella and other possible contaminants. They hunger for meat slaughtered on the farm. And they're willing to pay a premium — $6, $8 or more — for a gallon of milk straight from the cow.

So despite research outlining the dangers of consuming raw milk and other unprocessed foods, they're finding ways to circumnavigate federal, state and local laws that seek to control what they can serve at the dinner table. Such defiance, they said, comes from growing distrust of a food sector that has become more industrialized and consolidated — and whose products have been at the root of some of the country's deadliest food contamination cases.

"This is about control and profit, not our health," said Aajonus Vonderplanitz, co-founder of Rawesome Foods. "How can we not have the freedom to choose what we eat?"

Scientists and regulators point to epidemiological evidence linking disease outbreaks to raw milk: The milk can transmit bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7, salmonella, campylobacter and listeria, which can result in diarrhea, kidney failure or death.

"This is not about restricting the public's rights," said Nicole Neeser, program manager for dairy, meat and poultry inspection at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. "This is about making sure people are safe."

Demand for all manner of raw foods — including honey, nuts and meat — has been growing, spurred by heightened interest in the way food is produced. But raw milk in particular has drawn a lot of regulatory scrutiny, largely because the politically powerful dairy industry has pressed the government to act.

It is legal for licensed dairies to sell raw milk at retail outlets in California and 10 other states, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twenty states allow people to buy unpasteurized milk directly from farms, or take part in a "cow sharing" program (in which a person buys part ownership of an animal and gets some of its milk).

But in the case of Rawesome, regulators allege that the group broke the law by failing to have the proper permits to sell food to the public. While the raid was happening at Rawesome, another went down at one of its suppliers, Healthy Family Farms in Ventura County. California agriculture officials said farm owner Sharon Palmer's processing plant had not met standards to obtain a license. Palmer could not be reached for comment.

Rawesome's fans, though, shrugged off such concerns.

"I always had problems with my stomach and digestion with normal milk," said Darin Nellis, 41, who runs a nonprofit production company in Culver City and has been a member of Rawesome for three months. "I like how raw goat milk tastes, and I feel better."

Such sentiments exasperate officials at the Food and Drug Administration, which bans interstate sales of raw milk and advises that both milk and honey should be pasteurized.

The debate has boiled at the state level for years. Alta Dena Dairy founder Harold J.J. Stueve fought for decades to help keep raw milk sales legal in California. This year, Wisconsin legislators approved a bill aimed largely at allowing the state's struggling small farmers to sell more raw milk products. But Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed that bill under pressure from large producers. In neighboring Minnesota, whose official state drink is milk, authorities recently raided a private club similar to Rawesome in south Minneapolis.

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