Raw milk drinkers defiant as health authorities crack down
By Jeff Nagel | BC Local News
Gordon Watson, of Burnaby, is one of the shareholders in Home On The Range raw milk dairy in Chilliwack.
Public health officials are stepping up efforts to cut off the flow of unpasteurized milk or dairy products they say are dangerous and illegal.
But members of a Chilliwack-based cow-sharing co-op who claim the right to drink raw milk say they'll continue to resist efforts to shut them down.
They now meet secretly to distribute raw milk from the Home On The Range dairy farm after authorities last month raided distribution depots and poured the product down the drain.
Pressure on the group intensified Jan. 5 when the B.C. Centre for Disease Control urged anyone with unpasteurized dairy products from Home On The Range to discard them.
CDC officials said samples of raw milk, yogurt, cream, butter and cream cheese from the dairy tested positive for fecal contamination. Samples were collected at three outlets – Ethical Kitchen in North Vancouver, Controversial Kitchen and Ayurveda (both in Vancouver), but the dairy also distributed via Anita's Pharmacy in Burnaby, Ladybug Organics in Surrey and Rockwell Farms in Abbotsford.
Sixty-year-old Burnaby resident Gordon Watson, who helped organize the co-op, has demanded to see the lab tests.
"These people are notorious for coming up with smear tactics that turn out not to be so," said Watson, who defends the dairy's products as "perfectly healthy."
While raw milk can't be sold, dairy farm operators can drink what they produce.
So the more than 400 "shareholders" in Home On The Range – three-quarters of whom live in Metro Vancouver – argue they are owners and can legally split the 70 gallons of milk produced daily from the farm's 22 grass-fed cows.
Watson used to get his Home On The Range milk via Ladybug Organics in Surrey, a store that delivered to many member homes until it and other businesses that served as depots were handed cease-and-desist orders.
Members of Home On The Range dairy can get up close and personal with the Chilliwack farm's cows.
The distribution has become more challenging, but he vowed it won't stop.
"The shareholders are banding together to go out and get the milk from Chilliwack and bring it in and stay in one spot and hand it out," Watson said.
He admits it's a lot of effort to get illicit milk in B.C., considering it's possible to buy raw milk legally from regulated raw milk dairies just over the border in Washington State and bring it back.
Raw milk enthusiasts say they drink it for health benefits, including beneficial enzymes that are cooked out in the pasteurization process.
Many consumers are lactose-intolerant and say raw milk is easier to digest.
Provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall can't comprehend that logic, particularly from those concerned about health.
"There is no scientific evidence to suggest that raw milk has any benefit that pasteurized milk doesn't," he said. "And there's a pile of evidence to suggest that raw milk carries with it a whole lot of hazards."
Bacteria such as listeria, E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter sometimes found in unpasteurized milk can infect consumers.
"You're talking about taking raw milk from an animal which could have subclinical infection, intermittent infection or contamination of feces on its teats at levels you wouldn't visibly be able to see," Kendall said.
"It's nearly impossible to guarantee that your cows are infection-free and contaminant-free."
The risk isn't just theoretical.
A large outbreak of E. coli on southern Vancouver Island in 2001 was traced to raw goat milk.
And Kendall said there have been "numerous" outbreaks at regulated farms in U.S. states that allow raw milk sales.
"They had outbreaks of raw milk getting E. coli in 2005 in Washington and Oregon," he said. "That was a cow-share program."
He said authorities could be liable if they turn a blind eye to illegal raw milk distribution and a child or infant becomes gravely ill or dies as a result of an infection.
Sharing unpasteurized milk is illegal under provincial legislation governing the milk industry and the sale is prohibited under federal food and drug regulations.
Raw milk is also defined as a health hazard under B.C.'s Public Health Act.
Alice Jongerden, who operates Home On The Range with her husband and home-schooled children, denies she's breaking any law.
The family started with one cow to produce milk for themselves, then branched out to others when they had too much.
With Watson's help, they formed the shareholder structure almost three years ago and added more cows.
Participants can go to the farm, milk cows, churn butter, shovel manure and be part of the process of getting the food they eat.
"What people really want is to know where their food is coming from, what they're eating," Jongerden said.
Members assess the risks for themselves, she added.
"The fact is people want raw milk and they can't keep us from having our own milk from our own cows."
But she claims corporate-run dairies, health authorities and even other small farmers are against them.
Jongerden says the group could expand but she has been unable to rent more farmland, because other operators "disagree with what we're doing."
Fraser Health first moved in 2008 to try to shut down Home On The Range.
An appeal of those initial orders is still working its way through the legal system while milk continues to flow.
And eyes are now turning to Ontario, where a ruling is expected on a similar case of raw milk distribution by a farm-sharing co-op.
That may set a precedent affecting enforcement in B.C., according to George Rice, Fraser Health's manager of environmental health services for the eastern Fraser Valley.
If the current orders against the Chilliwack farm are quashed, health officials could try again under different legislation, potentially seeking a court injunction to halt distribution.
"We'll take whatever action is necessary to ensure the Public Health Act is upheld," Rice said.