Public health authorities would be wiser to find a way to accommodate the growing consumer demand for unpasteurized milk than pushing it underground, says an Ontario dairy farmer recently acquitted of charges related to distributing raw milk.
Durham, Ont. dairy farmer Michael Schmidt said he agrees with public health officials that raw milk is risky if not handled properly.
He said he’s concerned about underground operations capturing the demand, because as the new local food movement is picking up steam, a lot of people are getting into farming who “don’t know what they are doing.
“If you are a grain farmer and you mess up 1,000 acres, it’s a disaster. But in the raw milk issue, a real disaster is looming if you do not bring it out into the open,” said Schmidt, adding that a “certain standard” should be required in raw milk production.
Schmidt was acquitted last January of 18 counts of distributing raw milk. The judge in his closing comments said that courts can’t solve scientific debates, no matter how many expert witnesses from both sides are assembled.
“The only way the issue can be resolved, is to have the two opposing sides get together and figure out how to deal with the issue,” said Schmidt, in a debate over the issue of raw milk hosted by the National Farmers Union’s recent annual convention.
“It is not an issue of science; it is an issue of consumers wanting the product, and that is how I would approach it.”
Schmidt, who operates a 30-cow dairy co-op that has sold 150 shares to members for $300 each, then charges $3 per litre for raw milk, said that both sides of the raw milk debate are correct.
He has founded an organization that offers farmer training, consumer education, quality testing and control, and legal support for raw milk producers.
Canada is the only country in the G-8 group of industrialized nations that has a total prohibition on selling and distributing raw milk, he said, noting that most commercial dairy farmers drink raw milk straight from their bulk tanks, Queen Elizabeth II drinks raw milk, and the product can be found on store shelves and even vending machines in many countries without causing controversy.
The health debate is based on “fear,” which has led many people to believe that raw milk is very dangerous, even though the provincial legislation that he ran afoul of states that the issue is one of trade, since drinking raw milk is not specifically banned.
In 1995, his farm was raided by 22 armed police officers, which he argues “created momentum for consumer resistance.”
Since then, the constitutionality of the 1938 legislation governing raw milk has been called into question, he said, adding that although raw milk has not been legalized by his case, the judge declared his cow-share model a legal construct within existing milk and health legislation.
Ontario has since appealed. He noted that British Columbia has jumped in, declaring raw milk a “hazardous substance,” with one official comparing it to “jumping off a bridge,” “drinking city harbour water” and another stating that selling it is “tantamount to manslaughter.”
Schmidt added that the emotionally driven debate is “getting out of control,” with health officials demanding 100 per cent safety for raw milk, even though that is not required in any other notoriously problematic food products such as salad greens or chicken.
“Even the money you use to pay for your food is contaminated. E. coli has been shown to survive on coins for seven to 10 days,” said Schmidt.
Some dairy industry voices accuse him of trying to skirt the quota issue, but Schmidt, who used to own quota, said that his 16-year struggle is “consumer driven” and will not go away.
“There is a consumer movement which demands milk that seems to do good for them,” he said, adding that many claim raw milk helps them avoid health problems such as lactose intolerance, bloating, rashes, asthma and others.
“The emotional argument that if you allow raw milk, then supply management will crash, is just aimed to taint the whole debate.”
Other issues highlighted by the pro-raw milk crowd include concerns about confined feeding, medication and Johne’s disease, as well as “no trust” in the existing public health monopoly.
European immigrants and Muslims are demanding raw milk, and alternative health research is showing that consuming foods raw instead of processed results in health benefits.
Schmidt argued that there are two kinds of raw milk, and consumers should have the right to choose.
Commercial raw milk should not be consumed because once the production from 20 or more farms is pooled together, it poses an unacceptable risk of pathogen contamination.
On the other hand, dedicated raw milk dairies would not pool production with other farms, and would therefore take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of the milk.
Dr. Robert Buckingham, a Yaleeducated epidemiologist and public health expert from the University of Saskatchewan, carried the other side of the debate.
Public health, he said, is about “nothing more than the reduction of risk factors,” adding that pathogens such as listeria, E. coli, and campylobacter in raw milk can cause serious disease, even kidney failure.
“A lot of the points that Michael made are absolutely correct. However, we need to reduce disease and risk of disease in our society,” said Buckingham, noting that seat-belts are required because they have been proven to save lives.
“Pasteurization has been in existence for a long time and has been proven effective. Scientists, like myself, really believe that pasteurization is necessary for drinking milk. That’s all I have to say.” daniel. [email protected]
“Ifyouareagrain farmerandyoumess up1,000acres,it’sa disaster.Butinthe rawmilkissue,areal disasterisloomingif youdonotbringit outintotheopen.”
– MICHAEL SCHMIDT