How Investigators Exploited Rawesome Feuds; New Regulator Bullying in L.A. County; Fundamentals Behind Food Rights Push
What’s even sadder than the observations about Rawesome Food Club recalled by Victoria Bloch in the previous post is the fact that the police action against the private food club worked exactly as the government enforcers hoped it would.
How do I know? In connection with research I did for my book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights, I learned that the five federal, state, county, and local agencies involved in the first raid on Rawesome in June 2010 made it a point to explore the internal relationships of the Rawesome principals. As part of the initial state and county investigations into Rawesome to prepare for the June 2010 raid, the officials obtained via search warrants access to the emails of Aajonus Vonderplanitz, Sharon Palmer, and Victoria Bloch.
From those emails, they learned of the divisions that existed at Rawesome between the strong personalities Victoria Bloch described. Carrying out a “divide-and-conquer” strategy would be an easy matter, begun via the initial raid of June 2010 and completed with the August 2011 raid that included many felony charges being filed against Palmer, Bloch, and James Stewart, the Rawesome owner, allegedly in connection with illegal raw milk sales by Palmer and at Rawesome. Subsequent charges against Palmer and Stewart would come in Ventura County in connection with Palmer's acquisition of the farm there.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney, together with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, knew when they filed their charges that Palmer-Stewart were in a cat fight with Vonderplanitz. Piling charges on Palmer-Stewart while leaving Vonderplanitz unscathed would only intensify the bitterness of the feud that had developed.
So overjoyed were the government enforcers with the execution of the divide-and-conquer strategy that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tried to get in on the legal act, offering to bring the U.S. Justice Department in to explore adding federal charges on top of the dozens of state charges filed in August 2011. No need to do that, Kelly Sakir, the assistant L.A. County District Attorney in charge of the Rawesome case, told FDA officials. The situation was well in hand in terms of piling on charges. It was like shooting sitting ducks, and to bring in the feds might make the slaughter taking place ridiculous even by vindictive government standards.
So the officials just left the Rawesome principals to go at it, with vindictively accusatory emails, a vicious web site, and even civil legal suits, such as the suit and counter suit described by Victoria Bloch involving Vonderplanitz-Larry Otting and Palmer-Stewart. Even today, a number of us are drawn to take sides in the internal bickering that was going on at Rawesome. And the government officials just kind of wiped the dirt off their collective hands and walked away from the fights they ignited, with big smiles plastered across their collective faces.
The power of loyal customers has helped rescue a small northern California meat producer from possible extinction by power-happy regulators in Los Angeles County--at least temporarily. The Los Angeles County Department of Environmental Health, the same agency that helped initiate legal action against Rawesome Food Club in 2010, has been after Lindner Bison, a popular seller of bison meat at the Hollywood and Santa Monica farmers markets for many years.
Here’s how Kathy and Ken Lindner, the owners, explained what happened: “After ten years of trying to find affordable cold storage in L.A. County, on Sunday 7/14 Lindner Bison was banned from selling in farmers markets. Verny Grajeda, the inspector issuing the ban, must personally approve any new storage location. Until he does, Lindner bison cannot sell in LA farmers markets. Further Mr. Grajeda has indicated legal action against Lindner Bison.
“As a two-person company with a spotless quality and public safety record, and impeccable reputation, Lindner Bison uses interim commercial chest freezers that we've been told by Environmental Health meet county requirements. If the freezers were on the ranch and we brought our meat directly to each market from our ranch, 12 hours (600 miles) away, though impossible this too would meet county requirements. Most of the meat is in an affordable state licensed facility in Bakersfield, Kern County. For interim storage, L.A. County regulations state the meat must be in a ‘county approved storage’ facility.
“What is 'an approved facility?' It's hard to say. The question has been asked and the answer seems to be 'pay the fee, submit your plans and we'll get back to you.' Since April we've worked with someone who has done just that. Over $800 non-refundable license fees and countless resubmittals later, he gave up saying the latest requirement was installing a floor drain and creating a painted ceiling where a flourescent light and ceiling panels exist. This just to place four self-contained commercial chest freezers in a warehouse office space. In frustration he abandoned the effort.
“A ten-year search for space in existing approved facilities has also proven fruitless. Not only are they cost prohibitive for a small company like us, but without weekend access, precisely when we need them. Compounding the issue is that county regulations are clearly written for commercial sized food distribution companies, making it virtually impossible for any small business to become established, much less get started. Though Lindner Bison has repeatedly explained the requirements are impossible for us to afford, no solutions, compromise or help has even been offered. This includes any recommendations of an approved facility that met their requirements and ours. They know nothing exists.”
Enough people called and emailed the Los Angeles County Department of Environmental Health that the agency yesterday gave the Lindners a reprieve, until August 1, to try to come up with a solution. That’s not much, and it’s unclear whether the agency is willing to be more flexible about developing a solution, or whether supporters of the Lindners will need to make their will known, once again. You can follow the Lindners’ progress on their Facebook page. Should supporters need to contact county and state officials, contact info will be posted there.
Somehow, most discussions about food rights seem to return to a debate about the safety of raw milk. I just wrote an analysis of the emerging food rights movement, published at Alternet, and I pointed to an erosion of confidence in the American food system as a driving force, encouraging people to seek out private food sources, outside the regulated system.
And sure enough, much of the considerable discussion following the article is about raw milk and whether we should be allowed to drink it.