What’s more dangerous for your health: smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or drinking unpasteurized milk?

According to Health Canada, it’s drinking milk.

Canada is the only G8 country where the sale of raw milk is illegal. The country outlawed its sale in 1991. However, drinking raw milk is legal.

The debate over the legality of raw milk has recently surfaced because of two high-profile Canadian court battles.

Last week, Ontario farmer Michael Schmidt recently won his lengthy trial for the right to sell raw milk to customers at his dairy co-op, successfully arguing members are aware of the health risks. Chilliwack, B.C., farmer Alice Jongerden will soon fight a court injunction against her co-op in B.C. Supreme Court beginning February 2.

A question of risk

From a public health standpoint, milk is illegal because of its inherent risk of food borne illness, like E. coli, salmonella or Listeriosis. Canadian health authorities have chosen to make the pasteurization of milk mandatory because legalizing it would mean more people could drink it -- and possibly become ill.

“When it comes to a staple food like milk, which is an essential source of nutrients to the vast majority of Canadians, there is a need to provide greater protection for consumers. In particular, milk is widely consumed by young children, who are at greater risk for complications from food borne illness,” a spokesperson for Health Canada said in an email to ctvbc.ca.

In the United States, where 29 states allow the sale of raw milk, scientists say the liquid is a serious health risk. Of 153 milk-related health outbreaks in the U.S. from 1990 to 2003, 50 were attributed to raw dairy – as were 1140 sicknesses.

“In the states where raw milk is legal, there are more outbreaks than those where it isn’t. Interpreting it, you could say it makes a case that it should be illegal,” Dr. John Carsley, a public health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health, told ctvbc.ca.

For public health agencies, any potential health benefit of raw milk is overruled by the risk of sickness.

“Considering one-tenth of one per cent of milk is raw in the U.S., but 33 per cent of all milk sicknesses are due to raw milk, it’s pretty staggering,” Robert D. Ralyea, a food scientist at Cornell University, told ctvbc.ca from his New York lab.

But this risk protection for food products is not applied evenly under Canadian law.

There are other food products on store shelves that have proven risks of making you sick with E. coli, like raw chicken, shellfish or ground beef – all products with a much larger distribution system than raw milk. But meat and seafood are legal because the health risks are greatly decreased when the products are cooked thoroughly.

But what about non-food products that are legal in Canada but also have very real health risks -- including tobacco and alcohol? Raw dairy advocates say it’s a double standard that has more to do with protecting the profits of big dairies in Canada than protecting the health of Canadians.

“There’s no problem purchasing cigarettes and alcohol and products that kill thousands of people every year. It’s ridiculous,” said Pete Kennedy, a legal advocate for raw dairy farmers in the U.S.

Mark McAfee, the owner and CEO of California’s largest raw dairy, says Canada’s has a “choke hold” on its dairy producers.

“This is a market control system that has a huge economic complement. It’s money, money, money and control,” he told ctvbc.ca from his Fresno, California, farm.

In a dairy market already fragmented by organic and milk-alternative options, milk producers could stand to lose profit if raw milk was also allowed, said Kimberly Hartke, a member of the Weston A. Price Foundation based in Washington, D.C.

“They’re really on the ropes now because there’s a lot of alternatives now – soy milk, almond milk,” she said.

“The milk processing industry is heavily supported by tax dollars. The processors aren’t making any money, so the government has subsidized the whole industry. They’ve got a vested interest in the success of the market.”

There’s also a theory this market share would decrease even more once people discover what enthusiasts believe are convincing health benefits.

“It may only be one to two per cent of people drinking it now but as people learn about the benefits, that number will multiply,” said David Gumpert, the author of The Raw Milk Revolution.

“And then as those people look for locally produced dairy, they look for more locally produced pork and vegetables and it becomes a threat to the conventional food system.”

The legal battles of farmers and consumers wanting to drink raw milk in North America is waking up consumers to the issue of food rights, says Pete Kennedy, a legal advocate for the Farm-to-Consumer Defense Fund.

“I think access to food and the food of your choice is becoming a bigger and bigger issue,” he said from his office in Sarasota, Florida.

“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.”

Making a change

In an email to ctvbc.ca, a spokesperson for Health Canada said the agency has no plans of reviewing its policies on raw milk after an Ontario judge upheld the legality of cow-share farms that distributes dairy for paying members. But would legalizing raw milk really change anything?

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, says if it were to be legalized the upside would be tighter control over producers and the health and safety procedures at farms.

“But even when you put those constraints, regulations and safeguards in place you still do get outbreaks of food borne illness from those cows and people still do get sick from drinking unpasteurized milk at a grater rate than a properly pasteurized and managed food source.”

Dr. Carsley says even if it were allowed for sale in Canada, very little would change.

“It will never be anything more than a fringe market. The general population wouldn’t dream of drinking raw milk.”

Check back to CTV British Columbia on Jan. 26 for an in-depth comparison of conventional and industrial dairy in the U.S. and Canada.