A yearlong sting operation involving a multitude of state and federal agencies brought to justice Wednesday a dangerous ring of raw dairy enthusiasts in California.
Los Angeles police yesterday arrested a farmer, one of her employers and the owner of a raw foods store on criminal conspiracy charges stemming from their allegedly illegal production and sale of unpasteurized milk, cheese and other nefarious dairy products.
Sharon Palmer, 51, James Cecil Stewart, 64, and Eugenie Victoria Bloch, 58, were all charged in a thirteen-count complaint, which includes "the felony crime of processing milk without pasteurization" and four counts of conspiracy. Arraignments were scheduled for today.
Stewart is the owner of Rawesome Foods, a private buying club that offers customers raw milk and cheese, in addition to other products. State agents raided his store yesterday and seized or destroyed his entire inventory.
"In total, it looks like they took $30,000 to $50,000 worth of food," said one Rawesome member in a video interview
. "They backed up a twenty foot truck with a flatbed, and they filled it up with food. It was full when they left here, and you could see watermelons, coconuts, fresh produce that James had just bought this morning. They took it away. That truck was full. And when we came back in, they had double padlocked all the locks, and everything was bare."
In the search warrant
, authorities were authorized to seize any possible evidence of "interstate transportation," including tax records, real estate transactions, billing records, purchasing and club records, emails, receipts, cash register data, credit cards receipts and inventory records.
Police also were ordered to seize Stewart's computers and electronic devices, address books, telephone numbers, contacts, client lists and business cards.
Stewart is being held on $123,000 bail.
The Food and Drug Administration contends raw milk can carry harmful bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria. It's lawful to manufacture and sell unpasteurized dairy products in California, but certain licenses and permits are required. Stewart and Palmer, the owner of Healthy Family Farms, allegedly didn't have those permits.
According to the Los Angeles District Attorney's office, law enforcement agencies launched a yearlong sting operation when they caught wind of Stewart's and Palmer's illicit cheese.
"Investigators made undercover purchases of unpasteurized dairy products from Healthy Family Farms stands at Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara county farmers markets and at Rawesome," a county D.A. press release read. "The products included unpasteurized goat milk, cheese, yogurt and kefir."
Government agencies participating in the operation include the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; the California Franchise Tax Board; the California Department of Food and Agriculture's Milk and Dairy Food Safety Branch and the department's Division of Measurement Standards; the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office; the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health; the Ventura County Sheriff's Department; the Ventura County Department of Public Health; the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety.
This is not the first government action in recent months to crack down on producers of raw dairy products. Earlier in the year, federal agents raided an Amish farm in Pennsylvania for selling unpasteurized milk.
The FDA has yet to return a call for comment.