Court case heats up raw dairy debate in Canada
Published Friday, January 22, 2010 11:53AM PST
An unprecedented court decision in Ontario upholding the legality of raw milk co-ops may help the legal battles of a B.C. farmer and force Canadian regulators to legalize the sale of unpasteurized dairy, according to raw dairy experts.
Durham, Ont., farmer Michael Schmidt was found not-guilty on 19 charges related to selling unpasteurized milk Thursday.
The sale of raw milk has been prohibited in Canada since 1991, with health agencies saying it is a health hazard. Cow share operations sidestep the law by allowing members to buy into their organization -- making them part owners of the animals.
Justice of the peace Paul Kowarsky took two-and-a-half hours to read his verdict in the Newmarket, Ont., courtroom. He said the case was part of a "search for contemporary justice."
"[Members] are fully informed that the milk is not pasteurized," Kowarsky said in his ruling, adding the product is only sold to coop members who are well aware of health risks.
Outside the courthouse supporters cheered as Schmidt held a glass of raw milk.
Schmidt successfully argued the charges against him under the Health Protection and Promotion Act and the Milk Act are unconstitutional and infringe on his rights and freedoms.
The ruling gives hope to Alice Jongerden, a British Columbia farmer on the verge of entering into her own legal battle Feb. 1.
Fraser Health is seeking a permanent injunction against her cow-share co-op in Chilliwack. Home on the Range dairy was handed cease and desist orders by two health authorities in December, with authorities forcing depots to dump bottles of its milk and giving dire warnings for owners if they handled the product ever again.
"I'm excited. The verdict is great news," she told ctvbc.ca from her farm. "People can now enjoy their milk without fear"
Jongerden said the evidence submitted during the Ontario trial will force B.C. regulatory agencies and lawmakers alike to take notice.
"There's a lot that went into Schmidt's case -- a lot of witnesses, a lot of experts and a lot of facts -- and the judge gave a verdict of not guilty. It's been proven and the authorities can't ignore it."
The North America response
Raw dairy experts say Schmidt's court victory has the potential to create massive change in the way provincial and federal health authorities consider unpasteurized dairy in Canada.
"It means a tremendous amount in Canada," Ron Shmidt, author of The Untold Story of Milk, told ctvbc.ca from his organic farm in Watertown, Connecticut.
"Common sense would say cow shares are going to blossom all across Canada and it will be sold everywhere in a matter of time."
Kimberly Hartke, a member of the non-profit lobby group Weston A. Price Foundation in Washington, D.C., says the verdict may have implications beyond Canada.
"This is a full court press."
"It's gotten much more aggressive with regulators and this will send a message that they need to back off. If these farms were causing serious outbreaks and people were dying or having diarrhea for weeks they would have a leg to stand on. But none of these things are happening."
David Gumpert, a former business reporter with the Wall Street Journal and author of The Raw Milk Revolution, was in Ontario for Schmidt's decision. He says the case is more than health agencies labeling the product as dangerous -- it represents a battle between the current industrial food system and a growing local food movement.
"This upholds the right of consumers to get together in private groups and gain access to foods the regulatory authorities might not want them to have access to," he said.
"Raw milk just got a huge boost in Canada."
Pete Kennedy, a legal activist with the Farm2Consumer Legal Defense Fund, a group that supports U.S. farmers who want to sell unpasteurized dairy, says Schmidt's case has had a galvanizing effect on the way Canadians view food rights.
"There's a growing resentment for the government trying to deny that right to access raw milk when it's legal for them to consume it," he told ctvbc.ca from his office in Sarasota, Florida.
Michael Schmidt agrees.
"The battle about raw milk is a battle about food freedom and our individual rights," he said, adding that all seven of his children were raised on raw dairy, and never got sick.
Organic Pastures founder and CEO Mark McAfee, who sat through the trial for four days last year, said Canadian authorities would face a backlash if they deny people their food rights.
"It's a human desire and the suppression of that desire and choice will cause a revolution. Don't get in the way of this -- it'll bowl you over."
McAfee, who wrote the first North American health standards for raw dairy, believes the case will wake up the nation to what he feels are the healing qualities of unpasteurized dairy.
"After the court ruling is the side effect of what happens in the hearts and minds and souls of Canadians. Just the attention on the issue brings it to the forefront."
Health agencies weigh in
Dr. John Carsley, a public health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health, told ctvbc.ca legalizing cow share coops would make consumers more aware of the health risks of what they're drinking.
"The potential upside is that you can have a regulatory regime that will reduce the inherent risks in raw milk to the lowest possible level."
Carsley, who says public health views raw milk as all risk and no benefits, says there are risks if raw milk remains illegal.
"There will still be a black market without any external oversight and any rules about standards and consumers will even be less aware of what they're getting into."
He said legalizing cow shares could have a positive effect for farms like Home on the Range because they would be forced to have their cows tested monthly for infectious diseases and potentially harmful bacteria.
In an email to ctvbc.ca, a spokesperson for Health Canada said the agency has no intention "at this point" to review federal Food and Drug Regulations about raw milk in light of the Schmidt decision.
"These regulations were developed to improve public health protection as hundreds of cases of food borne diseases were reported every year that were linked to raw milk consumption," the agency wrote.
"Milk is heavily consumed by young children, a subset of the population that is at greater risk of complications from food borne illness. Health Canada believes that Canadians should have access to safe food, such as pasteurized milk."
Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health told ctvbc.ca they would not publically comment on the Ontario case until they have read and digested the judge's reasoning.
Alice Jongerden says she would support additional testing of her cows, adding that making cow shares legal in B.C. would take away the fear the average person has about drinking unpasteurized dairy.
"That way the people are involved in what's happening and they can meet the cow and have control."
"It would give more people the opportunity to own a cow, or part of a cow, without the fear of doing it under the table."
Kimberly Hartke says North American regulators need to catch up with what she feels is a growing consumer demand for unpasteurized milk coupled with an antiquated approach to food rights. She calls Michael Schmidt and Alice Jongerden "canaries in the freedom factory."
"Their lack of freedom is hurting our health. There's plenty of room for both raw and pasteurized dairies in Canada. Now the regulators just need to step up and make it happen."
On Jan. 22, CTV British Columbia brings you part two of Shelf Life: a five-part investigative series on the controversy over raw milk in B.C. and beyond.
Raw Milk: Magic elixir or health hazard? wades through scientific claims made about unpasturized dairy -- and brings you the raw truth.