WASHINGTON - One sun-drenched August morning, armed officers wearing bulletproof vests descended on a market in Venice, Calif., searching for illegally sold goods. It marked the end of a yearlong investigation in which undercover agents posed as customers.
Their target: unpasteurized milk.
Federal regulators say it is a public threat. They point to 143 cases of contamination linked to still births, miscarriages, and kidney failure since 1987, the latest involving five California children.
Back-to-nature consumers say the product strengthens the immune system by keeping intact good bacteria that are killed in pasteurization. The choice should be theirs, activists say.
“These guns are being drawn on basically aging hippies, all because of illegal milk,’’ said Ajna Sharma-Wilson, a Los Angeles lawyer for the Venice market owner. “This is a waste of taxpayer money.’’
The Aug. 3 crackdown in Venice has become a cause célèbre. Proponents of raw milk are part of a broader raw-foods movement that says unprocessed and organic products are healthier and urges consumers to buy directly from local farms.
Twenty states ban raw milk sales in some form and 30 allow it, including California. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans drink the product, according to the Food and Drug Administration. The Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit nutrition research group that works for universal access to raw milk, estimates the figure may exceed 9.4 million people, or about 3 percent of the population.
The FDA has not explained its involvement in the August raid. The target, Rawesome Foods, provided unpasteurized goat milk and related products and operated for more than six years without a required business permit, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
It’s illegal in California to sell unpasteurized dairy without applicable licenses and permits, which require veterinary inspections and spell out sanitation requirements.
No additional information is available on the case and the warrant is sealed, said the district attorney’s office.
The FDA banned the interstate sale of raw milk in 1987. Raw-milk advocates trying to overturn the restriction have the support of Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination. In May, he introduced legislation to allow interstate traffic of unpasteurized milk and milk products.
“These Americans have the right to consume these products without having the federal government second-guess their judgment about what products best promote health,’’ Paul said in introducing the bill.
Research shows no meaningful differences between raw and pasteurized milk, according to the FDA, but unpasteurized milk is “unsafe to eat.’’
Illnesses linked to raw milk may hurt the dairy industry if consumers fail to realize lack of pasteurization causes the outbreaks, said Chris Galen, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation.
“What’s happening is bad for the image and reputation of overall. It’s damaging,’’ Galen said.
The federation’s members include Land O’Lakes Inc. of Arden Hills, Minn., and Agri-Mark Inc. in Methuen, Mass., and they produce the majority of the US milk supply. It is calling on the FDA not to waver in the face of “pressure tactics’’ from raw milk supporters.
The nation’s 55,000 dairy farms earned $31 billion in 2010 for milk they sold, according to the federation.
Pasteurization, which heats milk to kill pathogens, was developed in 1864 by Louis Pasteur. It destroys organisms responsible for typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and diphtheria, according to the FDA. Bacteria in raw milk may be especially dangerous to pregnant women and children, according to the agency.
“We know there is a real risk with raw milk,’’ said David Theno, chief executive of Gray Dog Partners Inc., a food-safety consultant. “Is it OK to feed your kid vodka? It’s less risky than giving them raw milk.’’
California on Nov. 15 issued a recall and quarantine of raw milk products due to suspected E. coli contamination after five children were infected. All drank raw milk from the same dairy, the state said.
Kaleigh Lutz, a spokeswoman for the dairy, Organic Pastures Dairy Co., said tests the company performed on its product showed no contamination.
“If raw milk is so dangerous, where are the corpses?’’ asked Deborah Stockton, executive director of the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association. “They’re going after distributors the way they go after drug dealers.’’