Wednesday, Aug. 3, was a telling day for freedom of choice in America. In Venice, Calif., the Rawesome raw food club was raided by armed federal and county agents who arrested a club volunteer and seized computers, files, cash and $70,000 worth of perishable produce. James Stewart, 64, was charged on 13 counts, 12 of them related to the processing and sale of unpasteurized milk to club members. The other count involved unwashed, room-temperature eggs, a storage method Rawesome members prefer. The agents dumped out gallons of raw milk and filled a large flatbed with seized food, including coconuts, watermelons and frozen buffalo meat.
That same morning, leaders at the multinational conglomerate Cargill were calculating how best to deal with a deadly outbreak of drug-resistant salmonella that originated in a Cargill-owned turkey factory.
When word of the raw milk crackdown got out, a bevy of high-profile lawyers offered to represent the raw foodies pro bono, says Rawesome member Lela Buttery, 29. Christopher Darden, who helped prosecute O. J. Simpson, appeared at Stewart’s arraignment just in time to lower his bail from the $121,000 that prosecutors had recommended to $30,000, and to strike a rarely used clause that would have prevented Stewart from employing a bail bondsman.
Buttery tells me the mood in the courtroom was almost comical when Stewart’s initial $121,000 bail was announced. “We’d been watching child molesters and wife beaters get half that amount. James is accused of things like processing milk without pasteurization, and he gets such a high bail amount. The felons in court burst out laughing.”
Rawesome began 12 years ago as a small group of raw-milk drinkers who occasionally pooled their money and bought unpasteurized milk from local dairies. As more and more people joined, the club’s distribution facilities grew from a cooler in a parking lot to a rented storage space to the current warehouse. The inventory diversified, but the presentation remained minimal: food in piles, haphazardly labeled, as agreed on by club members.
Rawesome members sign a form attesting that “as a member of this private members-only club, I demand access to food that is (1) produced without exposure to chemical contaminants such as industrialized pesticides, fertilizers, cleansers or their gases; (2) complete with its natural unadulterated enzymes intact; (3) may contain microbes, including but not limited to salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter, listeria, gangrene and parasites; (4) the cows are grass-fed and the goats are pastured on a regular basis; (5) fowl are regularly given the opportunity to range outdoors and not fed soy products; and (6) eggs are unwashed and may have bacteria and poultry feces on them.”
The Aug. 3 raid was not Rawesome’s first. A June 2010 raid resulted in seizures of cash, computers and other equipment that has yet to be returned, Buttery says. It also resulted in Rawesome’s agreement not to distribute raw milk from Santa