Raw milk issue a mix-up, says dairy owner

Prosecutors weigh possible charges; hearing Thursday

(Ventura County Star, CA)

By Adam Foxman

 

Authorities are proceeding with a potential case against a Santa Paula woman accused of violating milk processing laws, but she said it’s just a misunderstanding she hopes to clear up.

 

Sharon Palmer said she was working with the California Department of Food and Agriculture to finish licensing her Healthy Family Farms dairy in December when Ventura County sheriff’s deputies and regulators mounted an undercover operation and arrested her.

 

Palmer said last week that she sold only pasteurized fresh milk products and cheese that had been aged the legally required 60 days. She believes confusion about her licenses and dealings with a raw milk club led to her arrest, she said.

 

“I don’t sell raw milk. I don’t sell raw products,” said Palmer, 48. “You don’t put your life savings into something and open yourself to the public knowing you did something wrong. That would be foolish.”

 

Palmer has not been charged with any crime, but the Sheriff’s Department last week forwarded the case to the District Attorney’s Office. Palmer is scheduled to appear in court Thursday and could be formally charged at that time, although prosecutors said they had not yet determined what charges, if any, to file.

 

Palmer, 48, was arrested Dec. 18 after authorities made undercover buys of Healthy Family Farms goat cheese and yogurt at local farmers markets and her new processing plant at 6780 Wheeler Canyon Road northwest of Santa Paula, sheriff’s officials said.

 

Palmer was booked into Ventura County Jail on suspicion of processing unpasteurized and regular milk products without licenses, both felony violations of the California Food and Agriculture Code. She was released the next day on her own recognizance, she said.

 

Authorities allege Palmer was operating an unlicensed dairy in Santa Paula and selling the products at farmers markets in Ventura, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties. Of 16 samples purchased during the investigation, 13 tested positive for the enzyme phosphatase, an indicator of raw milk or inadequate pasteurization, Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the Department of Food and Agriculture, said in an e-mail. The products did not contain any pathogens or disease-causing bacteria. Most milk is pasteurized — heated to a certain level for a certain amount of time — to destroy such pathogens.

 

While the Wheeler Canyon Road plant was not licensed and the Food and Agriculture department has no license application on file, Palmer holds a limited pasteurizer’s license, Lyle said. She had a permit for a Ventura plant called Nanny’s Udderly Delicious Goat, but it expired in December 2007, Lyle said.

 

Palmer disputes the expiration date.

 

The investigation began early last month after Ray Dominguez, a sheriff’s agricultural crimes detective, spotted Palmer’s new plant when he contacted her about an unrelated issue, he said.

 

Palmer said she had reported a theft from her farm.

 

She said she was in the process of moving her business from Ventura to the Santa Paula farm. She produced a large amount of milk products in Ventura and was storing them while she finished licensing the new plant, she said. She maintains she did not sell products from the ranch.

 

Palmer said the fact that no pathogens were detected in the samples obtained by undercover agents means they came from pasteurized products. The enzymes Lyle cited would have come from probiotic cultures added back into the products after pasteurization, she said.

 

Palmer said authorities might be associating her with unpasteurized products because of an arrangement she maintains with a club of raw food aficionados: She maintains goats and produces unpasteurized goat-milk products for the private club, an arrangement she believed was legal.

 

The club is part of the raw food advocacy organization called Right to Eat Healthy Foods, said Aajonus Vonderplanitz, the organization’s president. Vonderplanitz, a Malibu resident, said the club pays for Palmer’s services but not for the products themselves.

 

He said his organization has similar arrangements with farmers around the nation that are legal because it leases the animals and therefore owns the milk. He said the products are never sold to the public.

 

“The club agrees that we want bacteria, we don’t want toxic chemicals in our food,” Vonderplanitz said of unpasteurized products. “We have removed ourselves from any type of health department regulation.”

 

Vonderplanitz said his producers have gotten into trouble with the law before, but he has helped them successfully fight the charges. He said Palmer can count on his support if charged. “I’ve already got the briefs written,” he said.

 

A complex network of laws governs dairy production in California. In addition to licenses to produce standard dairy products, those who want to produce raw milk must have a special license. Only two producers in the state hold such a license, Lyle said.

 

Raw milk advocates say it’s healthy and safe, while regulators say unpasteurized products have been linked to outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli.

 

The Department of Food and Agriculture averages about two arrests a month related to raw milk, Lyle said.

 

Palmer said she thinks her arrest was more about the raw milk controversy than about her and hopes the misunderstanding can be cleared up out of court.

 

“If there’s something I do wrong, I’ll fix it,” she said. 1-11-09

http://www.venturacountystar.com/news/2009/jan/11/raw-milk-issue-a-mix-up-says-dairy-owner/

 

 

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