Food safety is a matter of power

  • Ari LeVaux


In Venice, Calif., the Rawesome raw-food club was raided Aug. 3 by armed federal and county agents who arrested a volunteer and seized computers, files, cash and $70,000 worth of perishable produce.

Club founder and manager James Stewart, 64, was charged with 13 counts, 12 of them related to the processing and sale of unpasteurized milk to club members. The other count involved unwashed, room-temperature eggs, a storage method Rawesome members prefer. The agents dumped gallons of raw milk and filled a large flatbed with seized food, including coconuts, watermelons and frozen buffalo meat.

On that same morning, leaders at the multinational conglomerate Cargill were calculating how best to deal with a deadly outbreak of drug-resistant salmonella that originated in a Cargill-owned turkey factory. So far, one person has died from eating the tainted turkey.

Later that day, as Stewart languished in jail, Cargill issued a voluntary recall -- four months after people began getting sick -- of 36 million pounds of ground turkey traceable to an 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 brand names, none of which include the word "Cargill."

A bevy of high-profile lawyers went to bat for the Rawesome manager and got his bail reduced from the $121,000 that prosecutor's had recommended to $30,000, and to strike a rarely used clause that would have prevented Stewart from employing a bail bondsman. Lela Buttery, a Rawesome club member, said the mood in the courtroom was almost comical when Stewart's initial $121,000 bail was announced.

"We'd been watching child molesters and wife-beaters get 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."

The Rawesome club began 12 years ago as a small group who occasionally pooled their money and bought unpasteurized milk from local dairies. As more people joined, the club's distribution facilities grew from a cooler in a parking lot to a rented storage space to the current warehouse. The inventory diversified, but the presentation remained minimal.

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

The Aug. 3 raid was not Rawesome's first. A 2010 raid resulted in seizures of cash, computers and other equipment that has yet to be returned, Buttery says. California is one of the few states that allow the sale of raw milk, but only from dairies permitted by the state. Until Aug. 3, Rawesome had been obtaining raw milk from a variety of sources. Buttery says many club members object to the Holstein breed used by the one certified raw-milk label in California -- Organic Pastures. They prefer milk from heirloom cattle varieties that produce different proteins. It's safe to say that uncertified raw milk was being spilt at Rawesome, which would indeed be illegal. But Rawesome members believe there's nothing wrong with a private club of consenting adults obtaining unpasteurized raw milk together.

Records in the club's office sourced each batch of raw milk, and this information, before it was seized, was available to members. If a contamination issue flared up, members contend, it could have been much more quickly traced than, say, that sickening Cargill turkey. Buttery says that in 12 years there hasn't been a reported problem at Rawesome.

Despite a lack of victims, Rawesome stands accused. And while Cargill has no shortage of victims, nobody at that company has been charged with a crime over the turkey recall. While Cargill self-polices, the Rawesome club has been under more intense scrutiny than members even realized.

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

Somehow, the government was able to find enough money for a multi-year, multi-agency undercover investigation to root out information that nobody was trying to hide. Details on the provenance of Rawesome's raw milk was available to all members -- including the government spies. You tell me if this makes sense.

Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers of the Range, a service of High Country News ( He writes about food from Placitas, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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