When you watch the brief video below of the raid yesterday on Rawesome Food Club, resist the inclination to focus on the conversation and shouting happening off to the left. Instead, keep an eye on the guy who keeps appearing on the right. He’s the law enforcement agent who’s literally closing the gate at Rawesome Food Club in Venice, CA, so no one can see that the agents inside are gathering pretty much all the nutrient-dense food in the two shipping containers that house Rawesome, prior to carting it off.
It’s not clear if Rawesome will re-open Saturday as scheduled, and as many members hope, or whether it will be shut down forever. The prosecutor in the arraignment today of two Rawesome associates said the Rawesome site “is supposed to be a vacant lot,” since no building permits have been issued. And the judge seemed to be in agreement.
The bigger question is whether that law enforcement agent is figuratively closing the gate on private food clubs in the U.S. as well. The pressure on such associations is certainly intensifying, nearly by the day.
On Thursday, two Rawesome associates, James Stewart and Victoria Bloch Coulter, were arraigned in a Los Angeles court, after having spent more than 24 hours in jail. Coulter’s $60,000 bail was eliminated, and she was released on her own recognizance. As for Stewart, his bail was reduced from $123,000 to $30,000, but by the end of Thursday, he still hadn’t been released; it’s understood that a bail agreement was being drawn up that stipulated as a condition of his release that he not engage in the sale of unpasteurized milk from an un-permitted location–another problem in addition to the vacant lot issue. The judge in the case seemed to have no awareness of the distinction between a public retail business and a private member-only association. (The third person arrested, Sharon Palmer, is in a different jail, and is scheduled to be arraigned Friday.)
And it’s there, in the confusion between private and public enterprises, that there’s a big problem. Even at that bastion of private enterprise, Forbes, there is much confusion. A blogger there, who criticized the FDA for wasting huge amounts of money and manpower on the raid, then asked: “I still wonder, though, if permits were available, why didn’t Stewart just bite the bullet? It seems easier to go along with bad regulations and fight them in the court of public opinion or at the ballot box rather than simply disregard them and face another raid.”
Private groups like Rawesome have sprung up so that people can access nutrient-dense foods that wouldn’t otherwise be allowed or be available via the “permitted” public retail food system. While much of the forbidden foods include a wide variety of raw dairy products, there is also the matter of chickens raised on soy-free diets, fermented vegetables, truly pastured eggs, and raw honey, among other products. It can certainly be said that raw dairy products are available in California, but some people want something other than Claravale and Organic Pastures milk–perhaps goat milk or camel milk, or cow’s milk from a producer outside California.
Now, if you look through the criminal complaint filed by the L.A. County District Attorney, you find that much of it is devoted to trying to discredit the private association structure established by Rawesome or the apparent CSA established by Sharon Palmer. There is discussion of a $1 “day fee” at one point for one of the undercover agents. There is the suggestion that the $50 annual membership fee for Rawesome is a wink-and-a-nod that leads to the quick hand-over of raw dairy.
There is also the suggestion that because Rawesome is outside California’s regulatory structure, its food is unsanitary and mislabeled–indeed, there are criminal counts associated with selling unsanitary and mislabeled food. It’s all playing on people’s ignorance of what happens in private food clubs and associations. A commenter on my previous post, RawMilk Advocate, points to the charge that “Eggs labeled with stickers that read: Healthy Family Farms Santa Paula, California. Fresh-free Range 8027A – Grade AA Pack Date 5/14/201 (134) Sell by: June 15 – Refrigerate after purchase – Large – were found for sale at Rawsome. These labels were attached to a box made by other commercial egg vendors.”
As I said in my previous post, I don’t know whether there is anything to the Aajonus Vonderplanitz charges about Sharon Palmer’s eggs. But anyone who regularly obtains eggs at farmers markets or via food clubs knows that the producers invariably place stickers with their farm names onto re-cycled egg containers from the grocery or other places. The producers save money on having customized containers produced for them.
But it’s completely clear all this has nothing to do with outsourcing or real safety issues. It is about availability of raw dairy and public-versus-private food distribution.
Since much of the case seems to be focused on Sharon Palmer’s goat milk (and James Stewart’s involvement in distributing it), it could be that the authorities were somehow troubled by what may have been her wink-and-nod approach to distribution. If so, it’s more evidence of something I’ve argued in the past: that food clubs need to dot their i’s and cross their t’s in putting together a private food group. Otherwise, they won’t stand a prayer in any kind of court challenge before an uneducated judge.
In any event, the word is that Rawesome will be open for members on Saturday, albeit with limited product availability. But the key is that it re-opens, and demonstrates the commitment of its members to retaining access to the nutrient-dense foods of their choice.