"When I am right, and really, truly right, I stand up for it," says 82-year-old Harold J.J. Stueve. For the last 47 years, the founder of Alta-Dena Dairy has believed himself really, truly right about raw milk.
He has defeated two attempts in the state Legislature to ban it. He has gone to Washington, D.C., to defend it. He has imported the world's expert on listeria from Germany to advise him. As for the cost, he has no idea how much he's spent. "Millions," he says, shrugging.
Stueve had those millions because he'd founded Alta-Dena Dairy in Monrovia in 1945, starting with 61 cows and a milk wagon. By the 1960s, with 18,000 head spread on various farms, from 8,000 to 10,000 of those cows being milked at any one time, Alta-Dena was the largest dairy in the world. Stueve was mayor of Monrovia and employed 63 family members; hundreds, if you count in-laws.
But lately things haven't been going so well. Last year, Alta-Dena refused to continue bottling raw milk for him. Then Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a Stueve-supported bill that would have banished hostile members of L.A. County's certifying body for raw milk, the Los Angeles County Medical Milk Commission. Had it become law, the bill would have excluded people who do not themselves consume certified raw milk.
Last month, in the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in Los Angeles, Stueve stood before the very commissioners he had tried to topple. Raw milk, he begged them to accept, is "the most perfect food God ever created."
Few Angelenos have heard of medical milk commissions. Most Californian counties don't have them. Stueve himself pushed for their introduction in L.A.
The idea arose in the 1890s when a New Jersey physician began setting standards for clean dairy farming. Soon, local medical milk commissions, staffed by physicians, veterinarians and health officials, were overseeing raw milk production across the U.S.
In 1953, on the advice of a local doctor, Stueve decided that he wanted his raw milk certified as being safe. He began paying for his bottling plants and two of his five Chino milking herds to be regularly inspected by the commission. "If there was a problem with disease in one herd, he could switch over to the other," explains Stueve's lawyer, Raymond Novell.
In 1967, L.A. County took over running the commission. Since then, Los Angeles County, unlike the rest of the state, has required that raw milk sold in its jurisdiction be certified. The only exceptions are cities, including Long Beach and Pasadena, that have their own health departments.
Stueve is proud of the standard he set. A highlight of a July tour of the old Chino dairy was a laundry where thousands of towels were laundered every day as part of certification. Four towels were used on each cow to wash their udders and teats with iodine solution, then dry them with clean cloths, before each milking.
"He maintained one of the cleanest dairy farms you would ever go to," confirms Shirley Fannin, director of disease control for L.A. County's Department of Health Services. But health department officials are still worried about the volume of milk. At the height of Alta-Dena's raw milk output, 3,000 cows certified for raw milk production were being milked every day and their milk was being drunk by an estimated 300,000 regular customers.
As a small but consistent number of salmonella cases began popping up on the radar of disease control monitors in the 1970s and '80s, the state stepped up testing of Stueve's certified raw milk. The result was more than 50 recalls over 22 years.
To lawyer Novell, this was harassment. Even inconclusive tests that proved to be negative sparked recalls, says Novell. When positives were genuine, he is still not convinced the milk was dangerous.
"In almost all cases, the milk had been consumed by the time the test come back," he says. "If the milk was dangerous, you should have been seeing illness."
Novell argues that raw milk was singled out for testing when other possible sources of infection were ignored.
In 1985, disaster struck: America was hit by an unprecedented series of food poisonings. The most severe, a pasteurization failure at the Jalisco cheese plant in Los Angeles, led to a reported 39 deaths from listeriosis. Of the 23 farms reportedly supplying Jalisco, five were owned by Alta-Dena, but as a well-known raw milk producer, Alta-Dena came in for most of the fire.
Exhaustive state testing found no listeria on the Alta-Dena premises, in its herds or milk. But it took four years for the dairy to clear its name in court. Meanwhile, at the height of the scandal and only two months after the Jalisco tragedy, the Consumers' Union sued Alta-Dena over its claim that certified raw milk was "healthy." Alta-Dena lost, and the case led to the health warning now required on bottles.
By 1989, Stueve had sold the bottling side of Alta-Dena, but kept half of his herds. Alta-Dena's new owners agreed to keep bottling raw milk under a new label called Stueve's Natural. But this agreement lapsed last year when Alta-Dena was sold yet again.
Stueve appeared to be beaten. By 1997, he was bankrupt. His Chino farm has now been sold, and its 3,000-strong herd awaits dispersal when work begins on a housing development. "It's a wreck," Stueve said during a recent tour. But his mood improved as he and his brother, Ed, posed by a rusting International truck. Their late brother Elmer bought it from the Army in 1945.
The next week, as Stueve sat flanked by his lawyer, a former congressman and family to face commissioners, it suddenly became clear that he was down but not out. As the commissioners wondered aloud why they were meeting when there was no longer raw milk to certify, Stueve's side let the fact drop that this meant the L.A. County Medical Milk Commission, which meets once a month, might indeed be redundant.
The Stueves are thinking, they announced, about forming a milk commission in another county and starting to produce certified raw milk again.
If they do this, under the current rules, the L.A. County board could not legally bar the milk from being sold within its boundaries.