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News

UNPASTEURIZED MILK

The right to rawness

August 4, 2008

A GlobeandMail.com Article

Some of the more worrisome instincts of the nanny state were on display in an Ontario courtroom last week as farmer Michael Schmidt was told he would soon stand trial for producing raw, unpasteurized milk.

Its sale is banned in Canada because milk that is not heated up to kill germs can harbour dangerous bacteria, and has been linked to E. coli infections.

Except among the health nuts and gourmands who love to drink it, and the bureaucrats who try to stop them, raw milk is an obscure subject. But its illegal status deserves scrutiny.

While some level of consumer protection is an obvious government responsibility, the raw-milk ban is unjustified and unfair. Milk is hardly the only possible source of bacteria such as E. coli, outbreaks of which have been traced to beef, spinach, onions, alfalfa sprouts and water.

None of these products has ever been banned by health regulators, and with good reason. The issue is never the products themselves, but poor farming and production practices. The same is true of raw milk. It can be dangerous, but the vast majority of the time it is perfectly safe. For proof, look to Europe, where raw milk is relatively common.

Even if raw milk is, on the whole, somewhat more dangerous than other products, so what? Consumers are trusted to make informed choices about comparative risk every day. Cigarettes are just one example; fatty foods are another (and they can be fed to children, with whose health parents take chances all the time).

The only difference is that tobacco and fat will almost certainly contribute to chronic illness, while raw milk has a tiny chance of causing acute illness. On the other hand, some advocates claim its consumption has health benefits.

As long as people who buy raw milk understand they are taking a small risk by doing so, there is no reason they should not be prevented by law. The solution may be a mandatory labelling regime, or allowing raw-milk sales only at farms, so that no shopper will innocently grab it from the supermarket shelf.

All societies must find an equilibrium between safety and liberty. In Canada, where some provinces do not allow bar patrons to carry drinks up or down staircases and a number of large cities have near-total bans on street food, we often place too much emphasis on the former. Permittinging the sale of raw milk would be a step toward a better balance.