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Raw Milk: What's the Risk?

Jordana Huber , Canwest News Service

Published: Friday, January 09, 2009

TORONTO - The buyer was willing to be discreet.

"Looking for a dairy farmer who is willing to sell me fresh raw milk," read the online ad posted by someone from Brantford, Ont. "Need about eight-10 litres a week. Realize how sensitive this subject is and am willing to keep quiet about it."

hat ad from December provides a window into the small, but thriving underground raw milk market that exists in Canada.

It's not illegal to drink raw milk from a cow if you own it; but selling milk that hasn't be pasteurized is prohibited by federal and provincial regulations.

Scientists have likened drinking raw milk to playing Russian roulette with your health. They warn bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria and Brucella can be found in raw milk and can lead to mild illnesses, long-lasting serious diseases, or even death.

Still, a small but vocal group of raw-milk proponents remains passionate in its opposition to both the science, and the notion governments should tell informed consumers what they can drink. Both sides of the argument will be played out in an Ontario court on Jan. 26, when government lawyers begin their prosecution of dairy farmer Michael Schmidt, 54, for his production and distribution of raw milk and his defiance of public health orders to stop providing it from Glencolton Farms - about 200 kilometres northwest of Toronto.

Raw milk advocates in British Columbia are closely watching the case in preparation for their own constitutional challenge to the province's milk distribution regulations, scheduled for March.

"It's the main showdown," said Schmidt who is planning to defend himself against more than 20 charges laid by the Ministry of Natural Resources under the Health Protection and Promotion Act and the Milk Act.

"I'm totally ready for them," he says.

Health Canada insists pasteurization, the process of heating milk for a short period to destroy disease-causing organisms, is the only way to ensure milk is safe for consumption. It is required for all milk sold in Canada.

The federal agency has issued several warnings in the past few years against drinking raw milk, noting children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are particularly at risk.

The "significant risks" associated with drinking raw milk "far outweigh any perceived benefits," a spokesman for Health Canada said.

Ontario's ministry of health said from 2005-07, 92 cases of illness caused by unpasteurized milk or cheese made from unpasteurized milk were reported in the province.

Earlier this month, a review published in the journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases described unpasteurized milk as a continued public health threat.

The authors said scientific evidence to substantiate purported health benefits of drinking raw milk were generally lacking.

"There is not adequate scientific data to support those claims," said co-author Jeff LeJeune, a board-certified veterinary microbiologist at Ohio State University who studies food safety and disease transmission between animals and humans.

"If people were judging it only on the health and safety aspects it wouldn't be controversial. For them, I think it's more about a core value belief and ability to make choices."

LeJeune's review was met with a response from The Weston A. Price Foundation, a U.S.-based not-for-profit and vocal advocate for raw milk.

The group described the review as an "attack" that repeats several "poor arguments common in the anti-raw milk literature."

Doug Powell, an associate professor at Kansas State University and scientific director of the International Food Safety Network said it is difficult to change the minds of people who hold "hocus-pocus scientific theories about the nutrient benefits of raw milk."

"From a public health point of view, it's a no brainer, don't drink it," Powell said. "From a consumer point of view, why not make raw sprouts illegal because there is the risk of Salmonella or E. coli?"

Powell said he doesn't take issue with adults choosing to drinking raw milk, but it's usually children who get sick because of their parents dietary choices.

There is nothing underground about Schmidt's raw milk operation.

The German-Canadian makes no secret of the fact that 150 families each pay a $300 fee to own a share in the cattle who produce raw milk on his Ontario farm.

Schmidt explained he's not selling milk, only offering cow share members their portion of what the cows produce. Raw milk tastes "round and rich" and is full of good bacteria and nutrients that are "destroyed" by pasteurization, he said.

Moreover, no food is 100 per cent risk-free and individuals should be able to make their own choice about what is a "reasonable risk," he said, noting Canada is the only G8 country with an outright ban on the sale of raw milk.

In December, an Ontario court penalized Schmidt $55,000 - a $5,000 fine and $50,000 in court costs - for defying a court order by selling milk straight from a cow's udder.

He has no plans to pay the penalty, he said.

"It comes down to: can I decide for myself what is good for me or does the government have to decide that?" Schmidt said. "We can still buy our cigarettes and the government knows smokers die of lung cancer."

Schmidt says he's been presented with a list of 20 possible government witnesses for the January trial including the Ministry of Natural Resources inspectors who raided his farm in 2006, undercover officers who posed as consumers interested in his milk to gather evidence, dairy microbiologists and public health officials.

His witness list includes a retired pathology professor from the University of Michigan and a microbiologist from Australia who will testify to the safety of raw milk, he said. Cowshare owners also will testify to their experiences, he said.

"We have never had anybody get sick," he said.

If he loses the case, he said he will appeal and is sure the government will do the same.

He is hoping the province "comes to its senses" and starts a dialogue with him.

Schmidt said he's asked the province to work with him to create regulations for raw-milk production and has offered to use his farm as a research site.

"Let's do it for two years and if we find there is a serious problem I will shut up and be done with," he said. "For me, it makes no difference, I can do something else with this farm.

"But it is the principle of it."

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