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Raw milk remains haunted by history

Reporter sides with its outlaw advocates on taste. But the current debate surely has Louis Pasteur spinning in his grave

Aug 03, 2008 04:30 AM

Christine Sismondo
Special to the Star

Before I got desperate and started Facebooking in the hopes of scoring some "white," my first call was to Sue.

I figured she'd have a line on the stuff. Sue's connected. She's the sort who shops at the Carrot, pokes around farmers' markets and knows how to score beef cheeks from dodgy butchers.

More importantly, her mother owns a share of a cow in Durham, Ont. Yes, cow. A share of.

The contraband "white" I'm looking for is raw milk.

"You can't get it," Sue said.

There was no wiggle room in her tone. Turns out Sue's mother only has access to her cow's milk on Fridays. Worse, this past week, the cow's "caretaker" went to court the day before to face contempt of court charges for continuing to distribute milk to his cow shareholders in York Region despite a court order. He might well have been in the slammer by milk day.

The "caretaker" is Michael Schmidt, the milk martyr of Ontario. He's the Durham farmer who had his equipment seized and was charged with operating a milk plant without a license during a dramatic November 2006 raid on his farm.

And, no, he didn't go to jail this past week. His case was remanded until September and we'll have to abide 'til then to learn if he can continue to "give away" raw (unpasteurized) milk to a community of shareholders like Sue's mom. To be clear, she's not a customer. It's been illegal to sell unpasteurized milk in Ontario since 1938 and so, Schmidt simply provides a service by milking and tending to his clients' cows. And yes I did score a bottle. But it turned out I had to go to Schmidt's Newmarket hearing to get it.

It was quite the scene. There were about 75 people milling about the hallway waiting for Schmidt – about two thirds, I'm told, cow shareholders from the Toronto area. The rest were neighbours and friends from the Grey Bruce region following their charismatic poster boy for freedom of choice.

And what, precisely is it that's driving this grassroots raw milk movement?

Of the myriad factors which have contributed to raw milk's most recent exaltation, its purported health benefits is likely the most important one. To hear some tell it, unpasteurized milk could be the next superfood. Schmidt credits it with consumers' improved immune systems and energy levels. Chronic ear infections and stomach cramps apparently disappear when children switch from pasteurized to raw milk.

The validity of these claims is a matter of heated debate. There's little peer-reviewed scientific evidence to support claims of raw milk's healing powers. We do know, however, that raw milk has been linked to tuberculosis, listeria, salmonella, staph, strep and E. Coli 0157:H7 – which is a hot topic in California, where a family is suing a dairy for having sold them allegedly contaminated raw milk, resulting in the kidney failure of the eleven-year-old girl. Unpasteurized milk is legal in California and 27 other states.

To be fair, some people fall ill drinking pasteurized milk products, too. And the overall Centres for Disease Control and Prevention numbers are low – in the neighbourhood of 150 per year – with two deaths reported over seven years. Still, this is in a miniscule raw milk-drinking population.

Raw milk supporters claim, however, that illnesses have been (both 100 years ago when raw milk was a major public health problem and now) a result of low standards on dairy farms, cows being fed food other than grass, poor refrigeration and adulteration of the milk. Unfortunately, while Schmidt's biodynamic farm may be spotless, and many argue he should be granted an exception, it's hard to imagine how the system would cope if other exceptions were granted and raw milk were delivered on a large scale to urban areas.

Cultural factors also appear to be driving the movement. More than ever, people are suspicious of agri-business and legislation put in place by governments which seemingly benefits "Big Food" and discriminates against small farmers. Add to that the fact that people are moving slowly towards "whole," unprocessed, local foods, ideally produced according to organic or biodynamic standards.

Check, check, check and check. Schmidt's raw milk fits in with all of those values.

And that doesn't even address the more esoteric side of the movement – for Schmidt and his tight-knit community of followers, reconnecting with food production and traditional foodways helps to bind us together.

"Food is culture," says Schmidt. "It's not just an item to consume."

But consuming is important, too. And the taste of this consumer item is yet another factor driving the current raw milk movement. Many of Toronto's top chefs are backing Schmidt, and raw milk aficionados swear by its superiority.

I needed to know if it tasted better.

Schmidt was willing to help me out. He and his entourage had to come halfway to Toronto for the little matter of a court date. The drop would take place in the parking lot, after the hearing.

This is a man who believes in the justice of his cause. It wasn't just the brazenness of the act that was impressive. When I introduced myself, he recognized my name and remembered what I wanted. Schmidt leaned in: "The milk is here."

How about that taste? The raw is a different animal — in colour, smell, mouthfeel and taste. I imagine that raw milk from every farm would have a unique flavour, each according to its own terroir. Schmidt's is ivory-coloured, viscous and buttery-sweet with a faint barnyard smell. Compared with the raw, the pasteurized is a thin, bland, bluish liquid. It's what Gertrude Stein said of Oakland: there's no there there.

The concern is that raw milk is a fashionable and romantic cause whose tastiness distracts from the same old worries. The pasteurization of milk, in the 19th century, was a breakthrough that eliminated many diseases. Making it mandatory was a hard-won battle. Reductions in disease, and in an astonishing infant mortality rate of one in seven Toronto children in 1910, are no mean legacy. That history is has grown faint, against the sweet taste of raw milk in the age of locavores, but it sure makes you gulp.

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