Food

Armed Federal Agents Raid a Health Food Club, Drag Volunteer to Jail

The government is powerless over corporate criminals like Cargill, but is instead cracking down on small businesses selling healthy food to willing consumers.

August 3rd was a telling day for the U.S. government's role in controlling our food safety and food security. In Los Angeles, the Rawesome raw food club was raided by armed federal and state agents who arrested a club volunteer and seized computers, file folders, cash, and $70,000 worth of perishable produce. The bail for volunteer James Stewart, 64, was set at $121,000 -- higher than the bail amounts assessed to narcotics dealers and domestic abusers in the courtroom that day. And, in a rare move, Stewart was denied the right to use a bondsman.

Of the thirteen counts against Stewart, 12 regarded raw milk and products made from raw milk that were distributed to club members in a Rose Avenue warehouse. (The other count involved unwashed, room temperature eggs). No illnesses have been reported in the club's 12-year history. And if a problem were to occur with the club's food, members say, they would be able to quickly figure out the source. This was the second such raid on Rawesome, the first having happened in June of 2010.

In addition to the seizure of virtually every file, hard drive, wallet, post-it note and receipt in Rawesome's office, the search warrant also demanded seizure of "cheese, cream, milk, whey, yogurt, butter, kefir, dietary supplements, and any other product deemed necessary for testing."

It remains to be seen if the coconuts, watermelons and buffalo meat taken from the Rawesome Food Club, as seen in this YouTube video, will be tested. What could they possibly test it for? Raw milk contamination? More than likely this food will be tossed.

Lela Buttery, 29, a Rawesome member and part of the de facto support team that has coalesced around Stewart, says a bevy of high profile lawyers have offered their services pro bono. Christopher Darden, who prosecuted OJ Simpson's civil suit, appeared at Stewart's arraignment just in time to get his bond lowered from $121,000 to $30,000 and strike a clause that prevented Stewart from using a bail bondsman.

Buttery says that when the bail amount was first read in court, it was almost comical. "We'd been watching child molesters and wife-beaters get [their bail set at] half that amount. James is accused of things like 'processing milk without pasteurization' and gets such a high bail amount... the felons in court burst out laughing."

Rawesome started 12 years ago as a small group of raw milk drinkers who would occasionally pool their money together for an order. Someone, often Stewart, would take the money to a local farm and score some fresh unpasteurized milk to be divided among the group. As more and more people joined, the club grew from a cooler in a parking lot to a rented storage space to the current warehouse. The inventory diversified as the club evolved, but the layout stayed minimal: in piles, barely labeled.

Rawesome members sign a form attesting "as a member of this private members-only club, I demand access to food that is 1) produced without exposure to chemical contaminants such as industrialized pesticides, fertilizers, cleansers or their gases; 2) complete with its natural unadulterated enzymes intact; 3) may contain microbes, including but not limited to salmonella, E.coli, campylobacter, listeria, gangrene and parasites; 4) the cows are grass-fed and the goats are pastured on a regular basis; 5) fowl are regularly given the opportunity to range outdoors and not fed soy products; and 6) eggs are unwashed and may have bacteria and poultry feces on them."

Last year's raid on Rawesome resulted in seizers of cash, computers and other equipment that have yet to be returned, says Buttery. It also resulted in Rawesome agreeing not to distribute raw milk from Santa Paula-based Healthy Family Farms, which had been supplying raw milk to Rawesome members.

California is one of the few states that allows the sale of raw milk, but only from dairies permitted by the state to do so. Healthy Family Farms, owned by Sharon Palmer, 51, had not kept up with its permitting, and Rawesome was ordered not to purchase HFF milk, which it didn't (Palmer disbanded the herd although she kept farming, selling chicken and eggs to Rawesome and at farmers' markets.) Where the club does get its raw milk from is complicated, says Buttery, who mentions it is often stocked raw camel's milk. A biologist by trade, Buttery gushed about the immunoglobulin chemistry of raw camel's milk.

Although her farm did not supply raw milk to Rawesome, Palmer and her employee Eugenie Bloch, 58, were also arrested on August 3, on nine counts including conspiracy to commit a crime and unlicensed business. Like Stewart they were initially held on bail amounts more appropriate for killers and rapists.

Later that day, as Stewart, Palmer, and Bloch languished in jail, Cargill issued a voluntary recall, 4 months after people began getting sick, of 36 million pounds of ground turkey traceable to its Arkansas plant. Cargill has a history of deadly outbreaks, is a major supplier to the nation's public school meal programs, and sells turkey under dozens of handles and brand names, none of which say "Cargill," reports Tom Philpott in Mother Jones.

Nobody at the plant or at Cargill has been charged with a crime.

While members of Rawesome who simply want to exercise their right to eat whatever they want to are getting bullied by armed multi-agency stings, our government agencies have no such powers of persuasion over corporations like Cargill. The USDA, which oversees the safety of meat products, can only issue "voluntary recalls" of products that have been infected with antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

And while the state of California and the federal government face unprecedented financial problems, considerable state and federal resources have been placed into an undercover investigation to root out information that nobody was trying to hide.

"Since the raid it's come out that we've been under investigation since June 30 of last year," says Buttery. "They've been monitoring us from unmarked vehicles, they have agents who have become members."

If the last week has taught us anything it's that raw milk advocates need better lobbyists in Washington D.C. How the courtroom drama plays out is anybody's guess, but Buttery doesn't think so many lawyers would be lining up to take on this case if it wasn't a winner. In the meantime, Stewart and his associates, and that space on Rose Ave in Venice, are prohibited from having anything to do with the exchange of raw milk. Which basically puts Rawesome out of business.

Or more accurately, out of cooperation.

Both Stewart and Bloch posted their bonds and were released by Friday, August 5th, but Palmer missed her arraignment that day. The mother of three children with a farm to take care of had been in jail since Wednesday, and her detention facility's transport got her to court too late for her arraignment. She'll have to wait until Monday, after five days in jail, for the opportunity to post bail.  

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.
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