A Ventura County farmer, one of her employees and the owner of an unlicensed Venice market were arrested today on criminal conspiracy charges stemming from the alleged illegal production and sale of unpasteurized goat milk, goat cheese and other products.
Sharon Ann Palmer, 51, James Cecil Stewart, 64, and Eugenie Victoria Bloch, 58 were charged in a 13-count complaint, which includes four conspiracy counts. Stewart and Bloch were expected to appear in Department 30 in the Foltz Criminal Justice Center Thursday for arraignment, said Deputy District Attorney Kelly Sakir of the District Attorney’s Environmental Law Section. Palmer’s arraignment hearing has not been set.
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Palmer owns Healthy Family Farms, LLC, in Santa Paula, which prosecutors allege has operated without any type of license or permit for milk production since 2007. The business Healthy Family Farms and Palmer are charged in nine of the 13 counts. Bloch works for Palmer and is charged in three conspiracy counts.
Stewart runs the Venice market Rawesome, which has been in operation for more than six years but has never had any type of business permit or license, prosecutors allege. Stewart is facing 13 counts.
During a year-long investigation, investigators made undercover purchases of unpasteurized dairy products from Healthy Family Farms stands at Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara county farmers markets and at Rawesome. The products included unpasteurized goat milk, cheese, yogurt and kefir.
The investigation found that Healthy Family Farms and Rawesome customers were required to pay a membership fee of up to $50, or purchase a one-time “day pass” at Rawesome to purchase products there. Bloch reportedly informed undercover operatives that the membership payments and paperwork were needed for “legal” reasons, and they were not supposed to sell dairy products to nonmembers.
In a case cited in the 21-page complaint, an undercover investigator received goat milk, stored in a cooler in the back of Healthy Family Farms van, in the parking lot of a grocery store.
While it is lawful to manufacture and sell unpasteurized dairy products in California, applicable licenses and permits are required. These include regular veterinarian inspections of the animals and following equipment and sanitation requirements.
Pasteurization kills or slows the growth of pathogens and microbes and it must be accomplished according to state standards under sanitary conditions. The process involves the heating of milk to a high temperature for a specific time and then cooling it immediately. The manufacture and sale of unpasteurized milk products poses a risk of pathogenic contamination. Those pathogens include salmonella, listeria, e-coli, staphylococcus aureus and tuberculosis.
Agencies taking part in the ongoing investigation include the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; the California Franchise Tax Board; the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Milk and Dairy Food Safety Branch and the department’s Division of Measurement Standards; the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office; the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health; the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, the Ventura County Department of Public Health; the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety.