Posted on August 17, 2011 - by Zoe Carpenter
A sting operation targeting a small food club raises questions about food safety, consumer freedom, and the influence of the corporate food system.
On August 3, armed federal and county agents raided Rawesome Foods, a food club in Venice, CA. They seized computers and cash, loaded a flatbed truck with watermelons and coconuts, and poured out gallons of fresh milk. They arrested James Stewart, Rawesome’s owner, on criminal conspiracy charges. His alleged crime? The production and sale of unpasteurized goat milk, goat cheese, yogurt and kefir.
Stewart was later charged on 13 counts, 12 of them related to the sale of “raw” or unpasteurized milk. Healthy Family Farms owner Sharon Palmer and her employee Victoria Bloch were also arrested on related charges.
The raid was the culmination of a year-long sting operation targeting the club, which began twelve years ago as a collective of raw-milk drinkers who sourced unpasteurized milk from local dairies. While the sale of raw milk is legal in California, retailers are legally required to buy from state-certified dairies. Organic Pastures, which produces milk from Holstein cattle, is the only certified raw-milk dairy in California. Rawesome’s members had been buying uncertified cow, goat, sheep and camel milk from various producers. They did so as a private club of consenting adults, freely choosing raw milk from local sources.
That same day, while prosecutors attempted to set Stewart’s bail at $121,000, food industry giant Cargill issued a voluntary recall of more than 36 million pounds of ground turkey. The meat was contaminated with a strain of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella and had caused at least one death and 76 illnesses. It took Cargill, which sells turkey under multiple brand names and is a major supplier to public school meal programs, more than four months after illnesses surfaced to issue the recall.
Rawesome’s members have been declared criminals, but no one affiliated with Cargill has been charged with a crime. In fact, the USDA can only recommend “voluntary recalls” in cases related to pathogen-contaminated products, leaving companies like Cargill to self-police.
While the austerity-obsessed government struggles to find room in the budget for food safety oversight of massive multinational corporations, American tax dollars are funding multi-agency sting operations directed against neighborhood food co-ops, anti-raw milk ads and press releases, and lawsuits against small-scale farmers.
As the FDA maintains, unpasteurized milk presents a potential health threat because it can carry bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli. But according to the FDA’s own statistics, sickness related to raw milk only accounts for about 0.00008% of food borne illnesses.
And there’s plenty of other data suggesting that the regulatory crackdown on raw milk is a waste of time and money. According to the CDC, approximately 800 people have become sick from raw milk since 1998. That’s an average of 62 people per year, compared with the 76,000,000 Americans who become ill, the 325,000 who are hospitalized, and the 5,000 who die annually from federally inspected/accepted ‘safe’ foods. Milk, pasteurized or unpasteurized, isn’t even on the list of the ten riskiest foods regulated by the FDA. The number one risk? Leafy greens.
If our regulatory agencies were solely concerned with the potential for food to cause disease, closer scrutiny would be placed on the opaque network of industrial producers that are responsible for deadlier and more frequent outbreaks of foodborne illness. For example, a recent technical review by the USDA acknowledged the connections between antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the prophylactic use of antibiotics on animal farms. But as Tom Philpott reported last week in Mother Jones, the report disappeared from the USDA website after complaints from the meat industry. Regulatory agencies have continually shied away from limiting antibiotic usage in industrial feedlots in spite of a vast body of scientific evidence pointing to the serious health threats related to that practice, like the resistant strain of Salmonella in Cargill’s turkey meat.
So the raw milk debate isn’t really about public health. It’s about the right to choose local, non-corporate foods. Rawesome members signed a form acknowledging the possibility of microbe contamination in the food they received, and records in the Rawesome office would have helped members trace contamination back to the source if illness had ever occurred. In comparison, consumers who eat federally accepted foods have much less information about what they eat, where it comes from, and how it’s produced.
The real health problems caused by the American food system have little to do with raw milk. Sign now to tell the FDA: we have the right to choose what goes into our bodies.