WASHINGTON — One sun-drenched August morning, armed officers wearing sunglasses and bullet-proof vests descended on a market in Venice, Calif., searching for illegally sold goods. It marked the end of a year-long investigation where undercover agents posed as customers.
Their target: raw, unpasteurized milk.
Federal regulators say it’s a dangerous and unnecessary public threat, pointing to 143 cases of contamination linked to still births, miscarriages and kidney failure since 1987, the latest involving five California children. Grassroots, back-to-nature consumers say the product strengthens the immune system by keeping intact good bacteria that’s killed in pasteurized milk. The choice should be theirs, the activists say.
“These guns are being drawn on basically aging hippies, all because of illegal milk,” said Ajna Sharma-Wilson, a Los Angeles lawyer for the Venice market owner, in an interview. “This is a waste of taxpayer money.”
The Aug. 3 crackdown on the Venice market has become a cause célèbre for a growing raw-milk movement that touts the product’s ability to strengthen the immune system and contends the federal enforcement is overzealous. Proponents are part of a broader raw-foods movement that touts unprocessed and organic products as a healthier alternative and advocates direct sales from local, sustainable farms to consumers.
Twenty states ban raw milk sales in some form and 30 allow it, including California. Less than 1 percent of Americans drink the product, according to the Food and Drug Administration. The Weston A. Price Foundation, a non-profit nutrition research group in Washington that works for universal access to raw milk, estimates the figure may exceed 9.4 million people, or about 3 percent of the population.
The FDA hasn’t explained its involvement in the August raid and Siobhan DeLancey, an agency spokeswoman, declined to comment. The target, Rawesome Foods, provided unpasteurized goat milk and related products and operated for more than six years without a required business permit or license, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
It’s illegal in California to sell unpasteurized dairy without applicable licenses and permits, which require veterinary inspections and sanitation requirements, according to the attorney’s office.
No additional information is available on the case and the warrant is sealed, said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the attorney’s office, in an interview.
The FDA banned the interstate sale of raw milk in 1987. Raw-milk advocates trying to overturn the restriction on interstate sales have attracted the support of Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican seeking the Republican presidential nomination, who in May introduced legislation to allow interstate traffic of unpasteurized milk and milk products for human consumption.
“These Americans have the right to consume these products without having the federal government second-guess their judgment about what products best promote health,” Paul said in introducing the bill.
Raw-milk advocates rallying against the federal crackdown staged a protest near the U.S. Capitol during which they milked a brown-and-white cow named Morgan. A caravan of moms in minivans drove across state lines with plastic jugs of raw milk to the FDA’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., where they drank the unpasteurized dairy product with chocolate chip, oatmeal and ginger cookies.
DeLancey, the FDA spokeswoman, referred inquiries about the federal investigations and raw milk safety to statements on the agency’s website. Research shows no meaningful differences in raw versus pasteurized milk, according to an FDA consumer fact sheet, and unpasteurized milk is “unsafe to eat.”
Illnesses linked to raw milk may hurt the dairy industry if consumers fail to realize lack of pasteurization causes the outbreaks, Chris Galen, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation, said in an interview.
“What’s happening is bad for the image and reputation of overall. It’s damaging,” said Galen. The Arlington, Va.- based federation — whose members include Land O’Lakes Inc. in Arden Hills, Minn., and Agri-Mark Inc. in Methuen, Mass., and produce the majority of the U.S. milk supply — is calling on the FDA not to waver in the face of “pressure tactics” from raw milk supporters, according to a Nov. 1 press release.
The nation’s 55,000 dairy farms earned $31 billion in 2010 for milk they sold, according to the federation.
Pasteurization, which heats milk to kill pathogens, was first developed in 1864 by Louis Pasteur and destroys organisms responsible for diseases such as typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and diphtheria, according to the FDA. Bacteria in raw milk may be especially dangerous to pregnant women and children, according to the agency’s web site.
“We know there is a real risk with raw milk,” David Theno, chief executive officer of Del Mar, Calif.-based Gray Dog Partners Inc., a food-safety consultant. “Is it OK to feed your kid vodka? It’s less risky than giving them raw milk.”
California on Nov. 15 issued a statewide recall and quarantine of raw milk products by Organic Pastures Dairy Company in Fresno County due to suspected E. coli contamination after five children were infected, according to the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture. All drank raw milk from the dairy, the department said.
Kaleigh Lutz, a spokeswoman for Organic Pastures, said tests the company performed on its product showed no contamination and that there may not be any link.
Organic Pastures was connected to an earlier outbreak that sickened four children, according to a 2006 press release from the state agency.
“It was hell, and all because he drank some milk,” said Mary McGonigle-Martin, 52, a high school guidance counselor in Murrieta, Calif., whose seven-year-old son, Chris, fell ill and wound up in a pediatric intensive care unit on a ventilator. A 2008 lawsuit filed by the family in Fresno County Superior Court was settled out of court and the child recovered, McGonigle-Martin said.
Organic Pastures admitted no wrongdoing in the outbreak and the company’s insurer settled because of concern a trial would lead to bad publicity, Lutz said. She said the company would have won its case.
Pasteurized milk is less healthy because it destroys good bacteria and raw milk builds the immune system, according to the Weston A. Price Foundation. The elderly, immune-compromised, children, and pregnant women are the very consumers who most need raw milk, the group said.
“If raw milk is so dangerous, where are the corpses?” Deborah Stockton, of Tazewell, Va., executive director of the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, which promotes direct farmer-to-consumer sales, said in an interview. “They’re going after distributors the way they go after drug dealers.”
In another action, the FDA is seeking a permanent injunction against Daniel Allgyer, an Amish farmer, to bar him from interstate distribution of raw milk, according to an April 19 complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In 2010, FDA officials came to his Rainbow Acres Farm, a dairy operation in Kinzers, Pa., to conduct an inspection.
The visit followed a nearly year-long investigation where FDA investigators using aliases to join an online group where they placed orders for unpasteurized milk, according to the complaint. They placed orders on 23 occasions, picked up the milk at private homes in Maryland, and analyzed some samples in labs to confirm they weren’t pasteurized.
Allgyer didn’t return a call seeking comment.
“I’m for regulation, but why is the FDA doing this?” said Marion Nestle, New York University professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, in an interview. “Here’s the FDA in hazmat suits taking on the little farmer with 20 cows. This is an Amish guy trying to make a living.”
An earlier enforcement action in California against Rawesome Food provided fodder for a segment on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report”, with the Rawesome market owner saying “it’s right to get dysentery if I want to.” The August raid was documented by jeering bystanders in dreadlocks and baseball caps with smart phones, who posted the agents’ search on YouTube.
Food-safety experts applaud the actions, however. Raw milk is so dangerous that it should be against the law to purchase it for consumption by children, said Richard Raymond, who was undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2005 through 2008, in an interview.
“To buy this food and feed it to your children?” Raymond wrote in an Aug. 18 article in Food Safety News, an online food safety publication. “Might as well lock them in your car on a 100-degree day while you stop by the casino to try and win the jackpot.”