As Claravale Farm Is Quarantined, Frustration Grows, Whispers Get Louder; Legal Check Mate
A third sizable raw dairy in the last four months has been temporarily shuttered--in addition to Organic Pastures Dairy Co. in California and The Family Cow in Pennsylvania. Lots of frustration, and unpleasant questions, are coming up as a result. The biggest question may be this: Is there some kind of common theme here?
Claravale Farm is one of only two dairies in California with a permit to sell raw dairy products (the other being Organic Pastures Dairy Co.). Perhaps most notably, in nearly 100 years of existence, it has never had an outbreak of illness.
Yet late last week, the California Department of Food and Agriculture forced the dairy into a recall of its products and a quarantine, whereby the dairy is essentially shut down, based on the discovery of campylobacter in its cow's milk cream.
"No illnesses have been definitively attributed to the products at this time," CDFA said in its statement. "However, the California Department of Public Health is conducting an epidemiological investigation of reported clusters of campylobacter illness where consumption of raw milk products may have occurred." To re-open, the dairy must show two milkings of pathogen-free product from state tests.
Opponents of raw milk would certainly like us to think that an increase in the number of illnesses from raw milk is inevitable, the result of expanding consumption. Proponents wonder if other factors may be at work.
The situation isn't helped by the reticence of Claravale's owner, Ron Garthwaite, to make himself available to the media. He seems only to communicate with a few of his customers. One customer, who runs a buying club, said in a note to its members a few days ago: "Claravale is very disappointed as this is the first time in their nearly 100 year history that they have ever had a test come back positive for a pathogen. They take so much pride on how clean and safe their milk is.
"Claravale spent the beginning part of the week again cleaning their dairy from top to bottom with following CDFA guidelines. In order to go back into production, they have to have tests for two milkings that come back completely clean. The CDFA took samples on Wednesday, after the full clean and so they hope that they will get the all clear this weekend, and will be selling again on Sunday."
One line of reasoning, as Mark McAfee suggests in a comment following my previous post, attributes the dairy's problems to Claravale's expansion into other product areas over the last year, most notably, raw goat's milk, and pasteurized ice cream. New products require new systems, and increase complexity. McAfee also points to potential problems from the dairy's use of glass bottles, which are re-cycled, and may not be cleaned properly.
Califarmer notes following my last post that only the cream has turned up showing contamination, suggesting the possibility of campylobacter problems with the cream separating or bottling equipment.
Finally, there is the whisper of conspiracy and sabotage. The whispers began among raw milk drinkers and distributors after there were some 80 campylobacter illnesses attributed to The Family Cow dairy in Pennsylvania. Now they have become a tag stronger with the Claravale outbreak. There was talk at one of the dairies about a disgruntled employee who supposedly made threats before departing.
As the California buying club manager stated in a message to members: "I personally would not be surprised if (Claravale's problems) were a part of a bigger plan to try to get rid of raw milk dairies in CA and in the U.S."
I generally don't subscribe to conspiracy theories. On the other hand, I don't think producers of unpasteurized milk would be misguided if they increased the security around their barns and milking areas.
"As federal criminal statutes have ballooned, it has become increasingly easy for Americans to end up on the wrong side of the law. Many of the new federal laws also set a lower bar for conviction than in the past: Prosecutors don't necessarily need to show that the defendant had criminal intent."
This quote is from a lengthy Wall Street Journal article that detailed a half dozen or more cases of ordinary citizens being charged with breaking laws, and then being convicted of misdemeanors and felonies, some of them very minor technical offenses. Though the article refers to the rapidly growing number of federal laws, the same thing has happened on a state level as well. I was reminded about this article, which came out last summer, by the sad events unfolding around the fraud charges against James Stewart and Larry "Lucky" Otting, of Rawesome fame.
They were long-time friends at Rawesome. As Mark McAfee noted in a comment recently, the two provided important support to his dairy when its raw milk operation was launched in 2001. Now they are ensnared in America's criminal justice system, which is not a good place to get stuck.
I'm convinced they all had good intentions when Stewart introduced Otting to Palmer back in 2008. "We all believed in the cause" of sustainable locally-produced food," Otting told me a few days ago. "We all wanted the best." (Thanks to Wendy for the excellent explanation, following my previous post, from Sharon Palmer's perspective.)
But there was the falling out over Palmer's alleged outsourcing of food. Plus, says Otting, he and Palmer quarreled over changes she made to the property--changes he says got him, as the owner, into trouble with local authorities. Stewart continued to support Palmer, as Otting became her adversary.
Even though both men were charged with fraud-related offenses in Ventura County, their adversarial relationship has continued into the courts. Otting worked out a deal with the Ventura County District Attorney to testify against Stewart and Palmer, in exchange for having his dozen or so charges reduced to a single offense, grand theft, punishable by a maximum six months in jail.
Stewart and Palmer, in the meantime, are still charged with dozens of felonies and misdemeanors that could lead to jail terms of thirty-plus years. Stewart is understandably bitter. "I sat there watching the hearing for three days," he told me a few days ago. "There is no justice...The whole thing is so insane."
"Lucky has millions of dollars. Sharon and I are broke and looking at jail terms."
America has long boasted the best system of justice money can buy. But more to the point, the system has ever more ways to ensnare people who may simply be trying to do good things for their communities. When the authorities want to come after you, it's increasingly easy for them to find some legality or another to trip you up on. And once they have you, there are all kinds of technicalities and potential deals that only those with top lawyers can handle; plea deals in which friends testify against each other is just one such arena.
The food rights movement needs to face up to these ugly realities as well. As much as many want to pretend Stewart doesn't exist, or cast him out as collateral damage, they need to face up to the possibility that what happened to him could happen to others. The case against him has much less to do with fraud and much more to do with derailing the availability of privately available food.
Here's another way of looking at it, pointed out by lawyer Bill Marler on his blog. It's been three years since Peanut Corp. of America sickened more than 700 and killed nine with tainted peanut butter, yet charges were never filed against its CEO. And James Stewart, whose food never made anyone sick, faces two trials in which he could be sentenced to possibly 40 years in jail--all for distributing food on a private member-only basis. I know life is unfair, but this unfair?