‘Playing Russian roulette with your health’: my encounter with LA’s raw-milk, powdered-meat smoothie

<span>Erewhon’s smoothie line up includes offerings such as the Coconut Cloud and Hailey Bieber’s Strawberry Glaze. This year it added the Raw Animal.</span><span>Photograph: Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images</span>
Erewhon’s smoothie line up includes offerings such as the Coconut Cloud and Hailey Bieber’s Strawberry Glaze. This year it added the Raw Animal.Photograph: Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

In Los Angeles, where a $20 smoothie from Erewhon market has become a key fashion accessory, many wellness drinks are unabashedly girly. There’s Hailey Bieber’s Strawberry Skin smoothie, and Kendall Jenner’s Peaches and Cream smoothie. Alongside the launch of her second album, Guts, Olivia Rodrigo debuted a kombucha smoothie called Good 4 Ur Guts.

But at Erewhon, a celebrity-approved grocer that is half health food store and half catwalk, male wellness influencers also get their chance in the spotlight.

One of Erewhon’s featured drinks over the past year is not another raw vegan concoction named after a supermodel: it’s a “raw, animal-based” drink created by one of America’s most famous male “meatfluencers”.

For $19, you can drink a smoothie made with powdered beef organs and unpasteurized milk, as part of the influencer Paul Saladino’s attempt to introduce Angelenos to his much-touted “carnivore diet”.

The smoothie’s ingredients include a supplement powder made from uncooked, freeze-dried beef liver, heart, kidney, spleen and pancreas, blended with more typical smoothie ingredients, including blueberries, banana and honey. It’s topped with whipped coconut cream blended with powdered cow colostrum, the nutrient-rich milk cows produce after giving birth.

“The name is giving cruelty. Like, should I call Peta?” one aspiring TikTok influencer quipped, dubbing it “the most un-LA smoothie ever”.

While “Dr Paul’s Raw Animal Smoothie” has gone minorly viral on TikTok, not everyone is a fan. US scientists are issuing new warnings against drinking “raw” milk as avian influenza spreads among US dairy cows – raising concerns that unpasteurized milk products might become, quite literally, viral.

Michael Payne, a researcher and outreach coordinator at the Western Institute of Food Safety and Security, said the contents of Erewhon’s Raw Animal Smoothie left him dismayed.

“People consuming that are playing Russian roulette with their health,” he said.

The risks of raw milk

Erewhon (a rearrangement of the word “nowhere”) has been a gathering place for devotees of countercultural diet trends since its founding in Boston in the 1960s, where it reportedly survived an early raid by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Today, it is a California grocery store so luxurious it has inspired a Louis Vuitton fragrance and a collaboration with Balenciaga.

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The grocery store has long sold raw milk, a controversial product with passionate defenders, particularly in California, where it can be sold legally in retail stores. Wellness entrepreneurs including Gwyneth Paltrow have endorsed it, even as parents whose children have become seriously ill after drinking raw milk campaign against it. Twenty other states prohibit the sale of raw milk within state borders, though a handful of them are now moving to legalize it for commercial sale.

Most milk consumed now in the US is briefly heated to kill harmful bacteria or other microbes in it before it is sold. This process of pasteurization has “remained the single most important food safety fire wall in history”, Payne said.

Without pasteurization, milk can carry “listeria or salmonella or kidney-killing E coli”, he said. “Those things happen almost every year from the consumption of raw dairy products.” (Raw milk consumption has been linked to at least 2,645 illnesses and 228 hospitalizations in the US in the past 20 years, according to the Food and Drug Administration.)

Now, there’s a new potential risk: three people have tested positive for bird flu in the US, the most recent a farm worker who appeared to have contracted the virus directly from an infected cow. The risk to humans from drinking infected milk is still theoretical, but a recent study examining farm cats in Texas who had died after drinking raw milk from cows infected with the H5N1 virus raised concerns about cross-species transmission.

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a warning that “high levels of A(H5N1) virus have been found in unpasteurized (‘raw’) milk”. The CDC noted that, while the risk of infection from humans drinking raw milk with live H5N1 virus was still “unknown”, the CDC and FDA “recommend against the consumption of raw milk or raw milk products”.

But Californians who embrace raw milk do not trust the FDA, said Mark McAfee, the Fresno, California-based founder of Raw Farm, which supplies the fermented milk drink for Erewhon’s smoothie.

In fact, some of his customers look to raw milk to provide protection from a range of emerging viruses, including H5N1 flu, McAfee said. He said he had had to tell some customers who were proactively interested in H5N1 milk that, unlike cows in other states, the H5N1 virus has not yet been detected in dairy cows in California.

Raw Farm is working closely with California health officials to monitor its cows for H5N1 virus, McAfee said, a move that he said has reassured the 500 stores who sell Raw Farm’s products.

Raw Farm milk caused a 2023 salmonella outbreak in California, and this year, the company voluntarily recalled one of its raw milk cheeses over concerns about an E coli outbreak, which the CDC said resulted in 11 illnesses and five hospitalizations across five states. While direct testing of the company’s products did not reveal any E coli contamination, the CDC said, “epidemiologic evidence” suggested Raw Farms cheddar “is the likely source of this outbreak”.

The company, which pleaded guilty in 2008 to putting “pet food” stickers on its raw milk in order to illegally sell it across state lines for human consumption, is still battling with federal prosecutors over its marketing and distribution of raw cheese.

In response to questions about the health risks of its Raw Animal smoothie, an Erewhon spokesperson wrote: “Due to company policy, we are unable to provide specific information regarding this particular product at this time.”

Does it taste like organs?

Saladino, who once called himself “CarnivoreMD”, rose to prominence alongside Jordan Peterson and other meat diet influencers.

On his website, Saladino warns his followers against eating plants, saying they are likely to be harmful, and calling vegetables from kale and broccoli to tomatoes and soybeans “bullshit foods” that may do more harm than good. (Saladino did not respond to a request for comment.)

“Are the vegans getting triggered?” he asked an Erewhon employee in one YouTube video during his smoothie’s Los Angeles launch last summer.

For Angelenos, who often use $20 smoothie tastings as fodder for building their social media followings, the gross-out factor of the Raw Animal smoothie seems to be no small part of its appeal.

But many videos about the beverage have not mentioned health concerns about “raw” milk.

On TikTok, Spencer Pratt, a former Los Angeles reality star, merely read the ingredients aloud and said “mmm”.

When I went to an Erewhon to sample Saladino’s smoothie, the cashier reassured me that pieces of raw beef liver were not going directly into the blender: “It’s like a powder,” she said. The smoothie was actually one of her favorites: “It has this sweetness – you don’t really taste the organs.”

The smoothie looked harmless enough, though it cost $22.80, including tip.

A sticker on the cup warned, in very small print, that unpasteurized milk products “may contain disease-causing micro-organisms” and that infants, elderly customers, and immunocompromised people were among those at highest risk.

I took what I assumed would be my first and last Russian roulette sip, and wasshocked: it was tart, creamy and delicious, with an innocent blueberry flavor. I took another sip, searching for undercurrents of powdered liver, but tasted only the banana.

Wondering if a more sophisticated palate might detect more meat flavor, I emailed the Guardian food writer Felicity Cloake, who had sampled the smoothie on a recent trip to Los Angeles, and called it offal-but-not-awful.

“My tasting note was fruits of the forest yoghurt with a faint but unmistakable back note of liver,” she wrote. “The sweet earthiness of the offal actually worked quite well with the berries but I found the concept, and the aftertaste, a little disquieting.”