With no warning one weekday morning, investigators entered an organic grocery with a search warrant and ordered the hemp-clad workers to put down their buckets of mashed coconut cream and to step away from the nuts.
Then, guns drawn, four officers fanned out across Rawesome Foods in Venice. Skirting past the arugula and peering under crates of zucchini, they found the raid’s target inside a walk-in refrigerator: unmarked jugs of raw milk.
“I still can’t believe they took our yogurt,” said Rawesome volunteer Sea J. Jones, a few days after the raid. “There’s a medical marijuana shop a couple miles away, and they’re raiding us because we’re selling raw dairy products?”
Cartons of raw goat and cow milk and blocks of unpasteurized goat cheese were among the groceries seized in the June 30 raid by federal, state and local authorities — the latest salvo in the heated food fight over what people can put in their mouths.
On one side are government regulators, who say they are enforcing rules designed to protect consumers from unsafe foods and to provide a level playing field for producers. On the other side are " healthy food” consumers — a faction of foodies who challenge government science and seek food in its most pure form.
They want almonds cracked fresh from the shell, not those run through a federally mandated pasteurization process that uses either heat or a chemical to kill off salmonella and other possible contaminants. They hunger for meat slaughtered on the farm. And they’re willing to pay a premium — $6, $8 or more — for a gallon of milk straight from the cow.
So despite research outlining the dangers of consuming raw milk and other unprocessed foods, they’re finding ways to circumnavigate federal, state and local laws that seek to control what they can serve at the dinner table. Such defiance, they said, comes from growing distrust of a food sector that has become more industrialized and consolidated — and whose products have been at the root of some of the country’s deadliest food contamination cases.
“This is about control and profit, not our health,” said Aajonus Vonderplanitz, co-founder of Rawesome Foods. “How can we not have the freedom to choose what we eat?”
Scientists and regulators point to epidemiological evidence linking disease outbreaks to raw milk: The milk can transmit bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7, salmonella, campylobacter and listeria, which can result in diarrhea, kidney failure or death.
“This is not about restricting the public’s rights,” said Nicole Neeser, program manager for dairy, meat and poultry inspection at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “This is about making sure people are safe.”
Demand for all manner of raw foods — including honey, nuts and meat — has been growing, spurred by heightened interest in the way food is produced. But raw milk in particular has drawn a lot of regulatory scrutiny, largely because the politically powerful dairy industry has pressed the government to act.
It is legal for licensed dairies to sell raw milk at retail outlets in California and 10 other states, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twenty states allow people to buy unpasteurized milk directly from farms, or take part in a “cow sharing” program (in which a person buys part ownership of an animal and gets some of its milk).
But in the case of Rawesome, regulators allege that the group broke the law by failing to have the proper permits to sell food to the public. While the raid was happening at Rawesome, another went down at one of its suppliers, Healthy Family Farms in Ventura County. California agriculture officials said farm owner Sharon Palmer’s processing plant had not met standards to obtain a license. Palmer could not be reached for comment.
Rawesome’s fans, though, shrugged off such concerns.
“I always had problems with my stomach and digestion with normal milk,” said Darin Nellis, 41, who runs a nonprofit production company in Culver City and has been a member of Rawesome for three months. “I like how raw goat milk tastes, and I feel better.”
Such sentiments exasperate officials at the Food and Drug Administration, which bans interstate sales of raw milk and advises that both milk and honey should be pasteurized.
The debate has boiled at the state level for years. Alta Dena Dairy founder Harold J.J. Stueve fought for decades to help keep raw milk sales legal in California. This year, Wisconsin legislators approved a bill aimed largely at allowing the state’s struggling small farmers to sell more raw milk products. But Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed that bill under pressure from large producers. In neighboring Minnesota, whose official state drink is milk, authorities recently raided a private club similar to Rawesome in south Minneapolis.
Such battles have had a chilling effect on some retailers. Whole Foods Market used to carry raw milk and raw milk products in California and three other states. But in March, the chain pulled all but a few cheeses off its shelves. Part of the reason, it said in a statement, was “the realities of the very high additional costs for liability insurance … because of the potential risks from selling unpasteurized milk and milk products.”
Rawesome was born of consumer frustration. In 1998, James Stewart — a vegetarian who drank raw milk — couldn’t find the stuff in Southern California grocery stores. So he started making road trips to dairies in northern California and to Whole Foods in San Jose, which at the time carried raw milk. Word spread. Family and friends wanted it too.
So Stewart and Vonderplanitz created a private food club where, for a $25 annual fee, members “lease” the land and livestock directly from a farmer. Then, members pay an additional service fee attached to each grocery item, which they say covers the cost of transporting each food item from the farm to Venice.
The pair reasoned that they didn’t need to obtain a license from state or local agencies because they weren’t technically retailers. In 2004, Rawesome opened on Rose Avenue in Venice. “We’re just a place where people come to pick up the products they already own,” Vonderplanitz said.
The L.A. County Public Health Department didn’t see it that way. Vonderplanitz said that in 2005 the agency told Rawesome staff they needed a food-business license. Vonderplanitz said that he objected in a letter, and that the county never replied or followed up. (County officials declined to comment.)
Five years passed. Rawesome now boasts 1,600 members, who battle for street parking every Wednesday and Saturday when the club is open.
Squeezed between a coffee shop and a vintage guitar store, Rawesome looks from the outside like a forgotten storage unit. A tiny club sign hangs on the 10-foot-tall corrugated fence that hides the windowless storefront.
But inside, the shop is bright and airy, a bohemian farmers market surrounded by burnt-orange walls and a white tarp roof to keep out the rain. Boxes of coconuts and ginger from Hawaii sit nestled next to crates of California squash. Labels identify where each bite of produce was grown: onions from the Viva Tierra farm in Harlingen, Texas, and King’s Crown Organic farm in King Hill, Idaho.
The members — a mix of tattooed young people and middle-aged executives in Italian shoes — chat as they head to the walk-in cooler in the back. It is jam-packed with meat and dairy. Ziploc bags are filled with chicken, beef and pork. Many don’t have an expiration date. The other side is stocked with Amish buttermilk ($7.95 a quart), Amish cream cheese ($12.75 a pound) and whole milk ($8.59 per half-gallon).
Agencies that participated in the raid on Rawesome included the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Investigators confiscated the club’s computer and 17 coolers packed with, among other things, 24 bottles of organic honey, 10 gallons of raw whole milk and two bottles of raw cane syrup. Stewart said the health department slapped a closure notice on the club’s front door that said it was “operating a food facility without a valid public health permit.”
The health department, district attorney’s office and the FDA declined to comment, citing the pending investigation. The state Department of Food and Agriculture, which was the agency of record on the search warrant, said it continues to work with the district attorney’s office.
Co-op members are undeterred. Four days after the raid, Rawesome reopened its doors. The shelves were restocked. They have remained so ever since.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the line stretched halfway down the block. A stern young man in baggy cargo pants and sunglasses guarded the entrance, checking drivers’ licenses. Lela Buttery, a Rawesome volunteer and professional biologist, handed out legal waivers to sign.
One woman, digging into her green grocery bag for a pen, asked, “You guys got shut down last week?”
“Yes,” Buttery said.
“That’s nuts,” the woman replied. “You’re not going to stop, right?”
Buttery grinned. “Can I see your membership card?”