ROSE AVE — Members of a Venice raw food club looked on in shock Wednesday as law enforcement agents dumped thousands of dollars worth of raw milk and seized the remaining contents of the club’s store as part of early morning raids that resulted in arrests.
Sharon Ann Palmer, proprietress of Happy Family Farms in Ventura County, James Cecil Stewart, owner of the Rawesome Food club and Eugenie Victoria Bloch, an advocate for a raw food foundation, were arrested on criminal conspiracy charges stemming from the alleged illegal production and sale of unpasteurized goat milk, goat cheese and other products.
Palmer, whose farm participates in the Santa Monica Farmers’ Markets, was taken into custody at approximately 6 a.m. at her home in Santa Paula, Calif., according to her minor daughter.
Stewart and Bloch were arrested at Rawesome around 7 a.m., while they were stocking shelves at the membership-only club, said store volunteer Leslie Bauer.
The arrests come as the result of an investigation spanning over a year, according to the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office.
This isn’t the first time Rawesome and Happy Family Farms have been on the wrong side of the law.
Search warrants were executed on both facilities on June 30, 2010, which resulted in Rawesome giving up the goat herd at Happy Family Farms and moving over to the Miller’s Organic Farm in Pennsylvania.
Several of the charges stem from those 2010 warrants, said Matt Krasnowski, spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office.
While it’s legal to sell raw products in California, the complaint alleges that Happy Family Farms provided the milk and cheese without appropriate licenses, and that Stewart operated Rawesome with neither a business permit nor license for its six years of operation.
According to the complaint, Palmer’s permits and licenses expired on Jan. 1, 2008. She continued to operate the farm between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2010, the complaint alleges.
During that time, raw, unpasteurized goat milk and goat milk products made at the farm were distributed to and sold by Rawesome, which the complaint alleges is an unlicensed, unpermitted market.
Rawesome owned the goats that produced the farm’s milk and cheese.
Over the course of the investigation, undercover agents bought unpasteurized products from Healthy Family Farms stands in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara county Farmers’ Markets and at Rawesome.
Agents, operating under various pseudonyms, offered to join the fee-based Rawesome food club, and in exchange were able to buy a variety of raw food products that they allege were poorly labeled and produced without appropriate health considerations.
During the 2010 raid of Palmer’s farm, investigators saw raw, uncovered chickens near milk products in a refrigerator, according to the complaint.
Lela Buttery, a Rawesome trustee, said that the market did not need the licenses described exactly because it’s a membership club, not a store that the general public can access.
“We’re no business of any kind,” she said. “We’re a membership club. The agreement is between Rawesome and the shopper, and we have agreements with the farms.”
Members of the Rawesome Food Club flocked to the store during the seizure to protest as the L.A. Department of Public Health, LAPD and the Franchise Tax Board executed the raid and seizure.
Jim Valerio travels from his home in Hawthorne, Calif. to get the natural milk and food products sold at Rawesome for his 4-year-old daughter.
“I want to give her good stuff, and I can’t do it,” he said. “I’m a 61-year-old man, and I wanted to cry out there today.”
Danielle Fetzer, 23, of Venice, was a two-year volunteer at Rawesome. Rawesome is staffed exclusively by volunteers.
“This is the second raid I’ve been through,” Fetzer said. “They dumped all of our raw milk.
“They took everything.”
Fetzer added that the police and other authorities unplugged their security cameras during the raid.
“I have a lot of emotions running through me,” Fetzer said. “I support everything about Rawsome.”
Advocates of raw milk believe that the pasteurization process kills important nutrients.
Health officials from the Center for Disease Control and other federal agencies claim that the unpasteurized product can carry bacteria that can make people ill or even kill them.
Palmer was being held at a Ventura County facility on $121,500 bail. Stewart and Bloch were being held at facilities in Los Angeles County on $123,000 and $60,000 bail, respectively.
Stewart and Bloch are expected to be arraigned today (Thursday) in the Foltz Criminal Justice Center.
Palmer’s arraignment has not yet been set.
Managing Editor Daniel Archuleta contributed to the reporting of this story.