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3 arrested on raw-milk charges

L.A. County prosecutors allege that unpasteurized dairy products were sold illegally and did not meet health standards.

August 04, 2011|By Stuart Pfeifer and P.J. Huffstutter, Los Angeles Times
  • Danielle Fetzer and Steven Pociunas, volunteers at Rawesome Foods in Venice, hug each other outside the store, whose owner was arrested Wednesday.
Danielle Fetzer and Steven Pociunas, volunteers at Rawesome Foods in Venice,… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

The owner of a Venice health food market and two other people were arrested on charges related to the allegedly unlawful production and sale of unpasteurized dairy products, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said.

The arrests of James Cecil Stewart, Sharon Ann Palmer and Eugenie Bloch on Wednesday marked the latest effort in a government crackdown on the sale of so-called raw dairy products.

Prosecutors in Los Angeles alleged that Stewart, 64, operates a Venice market called Rawesome Foods through which he illegally sold dairy products that did not meet health standards because they were unpasteurized or were produced at unlicensed facilities.

Palmer, 51, has operated Healthy Family Farms in Santa Paula since 2007 without the required licensing for milk production, prosecutors allege. She and her company face nine charges related to the production of unpasteurized milk products.

Bloch, a Healthy Family Farms employee, is charged with three counts of conspiracy.

The arrests followed a one-year investigation during which undercover agents purchased unpasteurized dairy products from Healthy Family Farms stands in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, said Matthew Krasnowski, a district attorney spokesman. The products included unpasteurized goat milk, cheese and yogurt.

The arrests came the same week that federal and state health officials warned the public about a food-borne illness outbreak tied to ground turkey contaminated with antibiotic-resistant salmonella, an outbreak in which one Californian has died and 76 others have fallen ill so far.

It also marks the latest salvo in the government's crackdown on unpasteurized dairy products.

In June 2010 investigators raided the Venice grocery store, seizing stacks of unmarked jugs of raw milk, cartons of raw goat and cow milk, and blocks of unpasteurized goat cheese, among other grocery items. Regulators alleged that Rawesome broke the law by failing to have the proper permits to sell food to the public.

Still, no arrests were made and Rawesome reopened the same week. Stewart said at the time that Rawesome didn't need such permits because it wasn't technically a retailer. He contended that the store was a private club whose members paid an annual fee and service charges to obtain products directly from farmers.

While the raid was taking place in Venice, another was occurring at Palmer's Healthy Family Farms in Ventura County. There, California agriculture officials said, the farm owner's milk processing plant had not met standards to obtain a license to sell raw milk or raw milk products. Shortly after the raid, Palmer was back in business.

Demand for all manner of raw foods has been growing, spurred by heightened interest in locally produced, unprocessed products.

But government regulators contend such products can be dangerous; there is scientific evidence linking disease outbreaks to raw milk. The milk can transmit bacteria, which can result in diarrhea, dangerously high fevers and in some cases death.

Raw milk, in particular, has drawn 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, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures. But the number of such outlets has dwindled amid retailer concerns over potential litigation.

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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