Raw Milk Controversy Nothing New

Closed Alta-Dena Drive Thru Dairy, Lincoln Heights
Closed Alta-Dena Drive Thru Dairy, Lincoln Heights
Laurie Avocado

People holding signs supporting raw milk, others giving testimonials of how drinking it has benefited their health. Were these scenes from the Thursday downtown protest over the raid on Rawesome Foods?, no, they occurred in January... of 1969. The recurrence of these events points to the long, contentious history of raw milk in Los Angeles city and county.

In 1949, the city council approved an ordinance requiring all milk sold in the city be either pasteurized or certified. It was noted that the ordinance would prevent owners of one or two cows from selling milk to their neighbors. Doctors spoke in favor of allowing raw milk to continue to be sold, citing that it contained vitamins destroyed by processing. Even then, it was charged that "in the background there is a commercial squeeze on the small dairies."

Locally, all was quiet on the raw milk front until January of 1969, when it was learned that state testing had turned up germs that cause Q fever in 18 of the 29 dairies that produced certified and grade A raw milk, including all 4 in Los Angeles County. The county Health Department quickly banned sale of raw milk and the board of supervisors backed the ban following a meeting in front of an audience filled with raw milk supporters carrying signs.

Alta-Dena Dairy, the largest producer of raw milk, filed a $10 million libel lawsuit against the county and ignored the ban, at one point selling raw milk labeled "pet food-not for human consumption." It was the beginning of a 30 year battle between Alta-Dena owner and raw milk advocate Harold Stueve and county and state officials. After lobbying in Sacramento and speaking with Governor Ronald Reagan, Stueve surrendered on his return to Los Angeles and was held in contempt for violating the ban (the charges were later dropped on a technicality).

Stueve also claimed their raw milk fell under the jurisdiction of the County Milk Commission instead of the Health Department. Images of a Milk Commissioner flashing a "cow-signal" aside, the little known board made up of physicians and a veterinarian was appointed by the Board of Supervisors solely to oversee certified raw milk. The board often supported Alta-Dena, once declining to follow a 1972 state health department pasteurization order, and on another occasion, okaying sale of raw milk from a quarantined herd owned by Alta-Dena.

In 1974, the Los Angeles Times uncovered that commission members had attended conventions and meetings in the Bahamas, Miami, San Diego and Las Vegas that had been paid for by Alta-Dena. Later revelations that Alta-Dena had a paid lobbyist and donated to campaigns of politicians who kept introducing legislation to relax controls over raw milk did not help their public image. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed one bill, despite being a raw milk drinker himself. Does any of this sound familiar yet?

Alta-Dena grew into one of the largest dairies in the country, despite disputes over a series of recalls, more than 20 in all, that were often accompanied by lawsuits filed by the dairy. But, following a 1985 outbreak of listeriosis traced to cheese using raw milk provided by Alta-Dena that claimed 22 lives in Los Angeles County (a jury found the dairy not liable four years later), and an order to cease ads marketing raw milk as healthy for infants and the elderly, Stueve sold the dairy and started a new brand, Stueve's Natural. A further sale cost him bottling access, and eventually Stueve's Natural ceased production in 1999, ending large scale raw milk production in Greater Los Angeles.

Note: Alta-Dena Dairy has not sold raw milk products since the dairy was purchased from the Stueve family in 1989.

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