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Judge Orders Alta-Dena to Put Warnings on Raw Milk

Times Staff Writers

Alta-Dena Certified Dairy has run a 35-year campaign of “misleading and sometimes downright dangerous” advertising about the health benefits of raw milk and must place warnings on such products for the next 10 years, a Superior Court judge ruled Monday.

After a 54-day trial in a false advertising suit, Alameda County Superior Court Judge John Sutter also ordered that Alta-Dena, the nation’s largest raw milk producer, stop using its motto, “The Dairy That Cares About Your Health, Naturally.”

“Unfortunately, the facts show that Alta-Dena often has not shown care for its raw milk customers’ health,” Sutter said in the 34-page opinion, adding that between 1971 and 1984, 31 people died in California of illness associated with raw milk consumption.

To correct the “misleading impression” created by Alta-Dena advertising, Sutter ordered the dairy to place warnings on its cartons of raw milk and raw milk products reading:

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“Warning: This milk may contain dangerous bacteria. Those facing the highest risk of disease or death include babies, pregnant women, the elderly, alcoholics, those with cancer, AIDS or reduced immunity, and those taking cortisone, antibiotics or antacids.”

The judge ordered Alta-Dena to pay $23,000 to Alameda County and $100,000 to the attorney general’s consumer education fund, plus yet-to-be-determined costs of the plaintiffs’ lawyers. Consumers Union, the American Public Health Assn. and Alameda County brought the suit.

Alta-Dena will appeal the ruling in which the judge took a step that the state Legislature refused to take in the face of lobbying by the dairy: order a warning label on its raw milk and raw milk products.

“This is legislation without representation,” Raymond Novell, attorney for Alta-Dena, declared, charging that the judge is biased against the City of Industry-based company.

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Alta-Dena and a handful of small dairies are the only producers of raw milk in California.

Novell said the Stueve family, which owns Alta-Dena and produces raw milk under the name Stueve’s Natural, is convinced that any warning label would be deceptive.

“This is the safest, most wholesome food--the way God made it, nothing added, nothing taken away. The label would be saying something that isn’t true,” Novell said.

But defending the warning label requirement, Elizabeth Laporte, attorney for Consumers Union, said there is no question that raw milk can be harmful. She added: “When you advertise a product as safe, you take on a particular responsibility. . . . (The decision) will finally force Alta-Dena to tell the truth to its consumers.”

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Sutter’s decision, which is tentative, will become final after he considers any corrections submitted by the attorneys involved in the case.

The judge noted that no California judge has ever required that a warning label be placed on a product. But he cited testimony about consumers who took ill with salmonella and other maladies after ingesting raw milk, and concluded that he could order corrective advertising in the form of a warning label.

“Impressions left by 35 years of deceptive advertising warrant correction. A warning is particularly important to targeted groups who are especially at risk, such as cancer patients and AIDS victims. For them, whether to drink raw milk or not may be a question of life and death,” Sutter said.

Second Warning

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The judge cited testimony that some people with AIDS drink raw milk in the hope that it will help their condition. If Alta-Dena continues to tout health benefits of raw milk, the judge said, it must add a second warning:

“The Food and Drug Administration has determined that there is no satisfactory scientific proofs to support claims that pasteurization significantly reduces the nutritional value of milk and that the risks associated with consuming raw certified milk outweigh any of its alleged health benefits.”

The FDA has banned interstate shipment of raw milk, and half the states do not allow its sale. Some states that permit raw milk sales require warning labels.

In the face of criticism, raw milk demand has dropped and Alta-Dena produces only 8,000 gallons of raw milk a day. Raw milk accounts for 1% of milk sales in California. Alta-Dena produces another 110,000 gallons of pasteurized milk daily. The required warning label does not apply to Alta-Dena’s pasteurized products.

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Sutter leveled particularly pointed criticism at the Los Angeles County Milk Commission, which certifies Alta-Dena Certified Dairy. The commission, and its parent organization, the American Assn. of Medical Milk Commissions, appear to be “captives” of Alta-Dena, Sutter said.

The judge noted that Alta-Dena pays most of the expenses of the American Assn. of Medical Milk Commissions. The Los Angeles commission is “totally supported financially by Alta-Dena.”

Alta-Dena successfully lobbied the Los Angeles commission to drop a requirement that certified raw milk be salmonella-free. The dairy stopped testing milk for salmonella in 1987 as too costly, the judge said.

Insisting that the commission aggressively monitors the dairy, Chairman Dr. Paul Fleiss said neither he nor the commission is a “captive” of the dairy, adding: “That is really a ridiculous statement. We are all appointed by the county and completely independent of the dairy.”

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Nominated by Dairy

The Board of Supervisors appointed Fleiss, a Los Angeles pediatrician, to the six-member commission. Alta-Dena nominated him as its representative.

In his decision, Sutter noted that Fleiss is a “paid consultant of Alta-Dena’s attorney, receiving $1,000 to $2,000 per month to review medical literature and lawsuits filed against Alta-Dena.”

Dan Morain reported from San Francisco and Daniel P. Puzo from Los Angeles.

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