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Unpasterized Milk Producers Claim Raw Deal

Raw milk enthusiasts want right to choose

By Joan Delaney
Epoch Times Victoria Staff

Article from The Epoch Times

Almost two years have passed since 20 inspectors from Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and several armed police officers stormed Michael Schmidt’s farm and confiscated his equipment, a computer and documents.

Schmidt’s crime? He was distributing milk — raw milk, that is, the kind that has been banned for direct sale in Canada. 

But while selling raw milk is illegal, it is legal to drink it if you own the cow. So Schmidt and other farmers like him got around the ban by selling shares in the animals, so-called cow-shares.

This way, the shareholders own the cows and can legally obtain raw milk while the farmer looks after the herd. However, Schmidt stands accused of selling and distributing unpasteurized milk. The case is scheduled to go to trial in January 2009. 

Shortly after the raid on Schmidt’s farm, the Ontario Ministry of Health issued a warning of the health risks posed by untreated milk, which range from mild illness to death.

Young children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with weak immune systems are particularly vulnerable to becoming seriously ill, the Ministry said, because bacteria found in raw milk include E.coli 0157, the strain found in the water that caused the deadly outbreak in Walkerton in 2000. 

Despite these warnings, there is a burgeoning black market for unpasteurized milk in Canada, and Schmidt’s case has raised awareness of the ongoing raw milk saga across the country.

Advocates of raw milk question the logic of keeping the sale of it illegal when it is widely sold in many European countries and in 28 U.S. states. They argue that they should have the freedom to choose. 

“We can just walk right over the border to Washington and buy it and bring it back and the Canadian government allows for that. We can go and get it and consume it here but we just can’t produce it here, so there’s something wrong with that,” says Alice Jongerdan.

Jongerdan runs Home On The Range, a cooperative dairy farm in Chilliwack, British Columbia with her husband and five children. With its balance of protein, fats, calcium and enzymes, Jongerdan says raw milk is “a perfect food.”

While pasteurization rapidly heats the milk in order to kill the bad bacteria, proponents of raw milk claim the process also destroys the availability of calcium as well as enzymes and other qualities that give raw milk its rich taste and high nutritional value.

Many credit raw milk with alleviating conditions such as asthma, insomnia, Crohn’s disease and allergies. Jongerdan says she knows of people who are lactose intolerant who can drink raw milk without any ill effects.

A 2006 British study found that drinking just a few glasses of raw milk a week reduced a child’s chances of developing eczema by close to 40 per cent and hay fever by 10 per cent.

However, an August news release from Health Canada warned that “any possible benefits are far outweighed by the serious risk of illness from drinking raw milk.”

Home on the Range has 12 Jersey and Gurensey cows which produce milk for about 200 households from Chilliwack to Vancouver. Jongerdan, who grew up on a dairy farm in Ontario, also supplies yoghurt, butter, butter oil, cream cheese and colostrums (milk produced just before and after giving birth). 

She says since she’s been operating the cow-share, nobody has become sick.

“We’ve put thousands of gallons of milk out over the last year and we’ve not had anybody ever get sick from it and that was before we even tested the cows. We do everything we can to make it clean and follow the rules.”

But she received an order to cease distributing raw milk for human consumption after an inspection of the farm in July by a health officer. Raw milk is classed as a health hazard under B.C.’s Health Act.

Gordon Watson, one of Jongerdan’s shareholders, is challenging the order in the B.C. Supreme Court. He says he has been trying for years “to get the government to agree that raw milk should be legal.”

“The point is raw milk dairying can be done safely. And I’ve been trying to get the government of BC to acknowledge that.”

Watson points out that there are many other foods legally for sale that can make people ill, a case in point being the current deli-meat Listeria outbreak which has so far killed 12 people with another seven deaths under investigation.

“This society puts up with all sorts of risks for food. There’s a whole list, and the first one on the list is sushi, then there’s raw sprouts, raw fruit juices…. There’s all sorts of things that are sold and people understand there is a risk in eating these things and people assume that risk.”

While the sale of raw milk is banned in Australia, Ireland and Scotland, it has always been legal in England. The royal family, it is said, has used “green top” milk for 500 years. In some European countries it is sold from vending machines at farms and on country roadsides.

In the U.S., raw milk is sold — with a warning label — in retail stores in California, Washington, South Carolina, Arizona and Connecticut. In states where it is illegal to sell it there are cow-share programs which are “holding up quite well legally,” says Sally Fallon, founding president of the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Based in Washington, D.C., the foundation has been lobbying for 10 years for “universal access to clean raw milk to those people who choose to use it,” she says.

Raw milk got a bad name when, around the turn of the last century, cows started being fed brewery swill. The swill made the milk watery so chalk was added to improve the look. This, along with the fact that the milk was produced in dirty conditions, resulted in high infant mortality rates.

The advent of refrigeration and pasteurization along with cleaner production methods changed all that.

However, pasteurization doesn’t make milk 100 per cent safe. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 1960 and 2000 in the U.S. there were at least 12 outbreaks associated with pasteurized milk. In 1985, a type of pasteurized cheese sold in California killed more than three dozen people.

The CDC also estimates that since 1998, 800 people have become sick from drinking unpasteurized milk or from eating raw cheese. However, Fallon maintains that if some basic rules are observed, the risks from raw milk are minimal.

“There are risks as there are with any food, and the number one way to control those risks is to make sure the cows are eating green grass and hay and not in confinement. We do not recommend raw milk from confinement dairies.”

In December 2006, soon after the raid on Michael Schmidt’s farm, MPP Bill Murdoch introduced a private member's resolution calling for an all-party task force to examine the issues surrounding the sale of unpasteurized milk.

He says today that since many people are obviously drinking raw milk, he wanted to see if it could be determined once and for all whether the product is safe. But the bill was defeated.

“I honestly think we should look at it because there’s two sides here and I think we should have real experts look at it to see whether nowadays it’s as bad as it was 50 years ago. Milking has changed so much in the last 50 years that maybe its okay now,” Murdoch says.

But that may not happen any time soon, at least in Ontario.

“It’s certainly something we’re always looking at but I don’t anticipate any changes in the current system as it is now,” says Mark Nesbitt, spokesperson for the Ontario Health Department.

South of the border, however, Fallon predicts a different scenario.

“It’s changing as we speak. We have some rough waters ahead but I’m confident that within 20 years there will actually not be any pasteurized milk left, it’ll all be raw.”

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