Private food clubs and small producers of raw milk and cheese have witnessed all manner of regulatory and legal interference in recent years — confiscation of raw milk deliveries, quarantining of raw milk, searches of dairies carried out by armed state and federal agents, shutdown of cheese plants. But last week’s multi-agency assault on Rawesome Food Club in Venice, Calif., marked the first time individuals associated with a food club or a small farm had actually been thrown into jail, in this case charged with 13 felonies and misdemeanors, and held on high bail (requested between $60,000 and $130,000).
The Los Angeles County district attorney issued a criminal complaint, growing out of a year-and-a-half undercover operation, against James Stewart, the manager of Rawesome, along with Sharon Palmer, the owner of a farm that supplied Rawesome with eggs and chickens, and Victoria Bloch, an assistant to Palmer. The judge who finally released Stewart and Bloch (Stewart on $30,000 bail and Bloch on her own recognizance) clamped gag orders on the two and prohibited Stewart from being involved in raw milk sales and distribution. (Palmer was released separately, on $60,000 bail, a few days later.) The judge also indicated that Rawesome, because it had no permits (based on its contention that it is a private club), might be a legitimate target of Los Angeles officials aiming to shut it down.
Needless to say, many of the 2,000-plus members of Rawesome are extremely upset. Now, they have joined forces with members of a Maryland food club, Grassfed on the Hill, to form a new national association of food clubs, the Farm Food Freedom Coalition, intended to fight the federal and state crackdowns on private food groups and farmers. Grassfed on the Hill was hit with a 13-month undercover investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that resulted in an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania being sued in U.S. District Court, with the U.S. Justice Department seeking a permanent injunction preventing him from supplying the Maryland club.
Moreover, two of the defendants in the Rawesome case (Stewart and Bloch) are being represented by lawyers with the firm headed by Christopher Darden, who helped prosecute O.J. Simpson. Perhaps more to the point of the Rawesome case, he spent 15 years in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. Sharon Palmer is being represented by Ventura lawyer Matt Bromund. (Bloch is also being represented by Gary Cox, a lawyer with the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.)
And in a related case, three shareholders in a California herdshare arrangement — similar in certain respects to the Rawesome arrangement challenged by the Los Angeles County district attorney — have launched a suit against the California Department of Food and Agriculture along with the Santa Clara County district attorney. The suit is in response to a California Department of Food and Agriculture and district attorney cease-and-desist notice sent last April to the owners of the San Jose farm, Evergreen Acres.
According to the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which filed the case, the suit “asks for a declaration by the court that [the shareholders] have the inalienable right to purchase, own, possess, and use a goat, that they have the inalienable right to consume the raw milk produced by their goat, and a declaration that they have the inalienable right to contract with the [San Jose farm] to board, care for, and milk their goats. The suit asks for a permanent injunction against the State of California and Santa Clara County, preventing defendants from commencing or continuing any enforcement action against plaintiffs ‘or against anyone else in California who wishes to engage in the conduct engaged in by plaintiffs.’ “
The new Farm Food Freedom Coalition organized by the California and Maryland food clubs is noteworthy because it is heavily represented by mothers among its organizers. Liz Reitzig, mother of five, says that while there are a number of organizations focused on food rights, “most are geared toward farmers. We want to give consumers more of a voice.”
The fact that it’s mothers leading the charge should give the bureaucrats and lawyers at the FDA and Los Angeles County district attorney cause for concern, says Mark McAfee, owner of Organic Pastures Dairy Co., the largest raw milk producer in the country. “Moms from the east and west coast and everywhere in between are uniting,” he says. “If a coalition of moms take on the behemoth FDA over food rights … oh Jesus.”
Get Grist in your inbox