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Milk Martyr

Michael Schmidt is at the epicentre of the legal battle to sell raw milk

Matthew Coutts, National Post 

Article from The National Post

The defendant has been called everything from the hero of the organic food movement to the inspiration for the first international conference on raw milk. But, as he returned to an Ontario courtroom this week to his other role as the focus of a decade-long court battle over the legality of peddling raw milk, Michael Schmidt remained, in his dress and composure, a simple dairy farmer.

Wearing the same black jeans, black vest and simple, beige, button-up shirt he had worn the day before, the 54-year-old Durham region dairy farmer sat waiting for his chance to speak in his own defence. As he acted as his own lawyer in the face of nearly 20 criminal charges for the sale and distribution of unpasteurized milk, a plastic milk crate of court documents sat on the floor next to him.

After calling himself as a witness, he stood to read a prepared statement and answer questions from Ministry of Natural Resources lawyers into the specifics of a "cow share" co-operative he contends makes legal his distribution of raw milk to a select group of members.

During his nearly 90-minute appearance, much anticipated in the German immigrant's long-running legal battle, Justice Paul Kowarsky reminded the defendant he was allowed to sit down while he addressed the court. The amicable milkman declined, saying simply, "I love to stand."

His choice of words sparked a momentary buzz through the tiny Newmarket courtroom, filled primarily with supporters, raw milk advocates and members of the contentious co-op program who have come to see the soft-spoken farmer as a hero and even a martyr, standing up for those who seek to drink legally unpasteurized milk.

For something that takes so little to prepare, raw or unpasteurized milk has caused a mighty stir throughout Ontario and the country recently, all of which seemed to come to a head this week as Mr. Schmidt's case unrolled in the courtroom, with a raw milk symposium set to take place in downtown Toronto today.

With the confluence of this pivotal trial and the academic symposium, it is fitting to ask whether this is the epicentre of a national movement or just a gathering of a small band of advocates on the fringe, and alternately, whether Mr. Schmidt is some kind of organic superhero, as his supporters contend, or just a farmer trying to peddle his product.

In countries around the world, including Mr. Schmidt's native Germany, unpasteurized milk is available in stores and the focus of very little debate. In Canada and parts of the United States, however, officials have deemed untreated milk a health concern that could contain deadly bacteria capable of spreading salmonella, listeria and E. coli. Ontario's Health Protection and Promotion Act makes it illegal to "sell, offer for sale, deliver or distribute milk or cream that has not been pasteurized or sterilized," although it is not illegal to drink it.

Advocates, none more visible than Mr. Schmidt, have long contended that pasteurization decreases the taste and health benefits of milk, and seek legal changes to allow people a personal choice.

The language of the advocates can reach the height of hero worship, like this press release distributed ahead of the trial this week: "Michael Schmidt intellectualizes his passion in a productive and progressive manner. This charismatic farmer is not only representing the underdog, but an inspiration for anyone raging against the hand life deals them."

Conversations outside of court this week constantly hit on the hot-points of the advocacy movement: Raw milk tastes better, it's healthier, heating for sterilization dims the milk's natural glow. These topics will all be discussed at today's International Raw Milk Symposium at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, where Mr. Schmidt, several of his supporters and international experts will discuss recent nutritional research and debate regulations.

Organizers describe the event as a chance for the public to hear how raw milk is "demonstrably better for you than pasteurized milk" and is seeing a rising consumer demand.

Top billings at the event are Dr. Ron Hull, an Australian microbiologist, and Dr. Ted Beals, a Michigan pathologist, both of whom are in Ontario to appear as expert witnesses during Mr. Schmidt's case.

"My view is that raw milk from farms like Michael's is safe. The evidence is there that it is not a health hazard. The other thing is that industrial milk destined for pasteurization is different in that respect," based on the way it is handled, said Dr. Hull.

Dr. Beals similarly added that he has no reason to doubt government studies that have found pathogens in milk before it is pasteurized, but also can't ignore findings on milk destined for raw consumption that finds it to be safe.

"I'm here to testify that the product that we are talking about doesn't have the documented properties that the studies they are doing have shown. And most conspicuously, people aren't getting sick," he said.

Celebrity chef Jamie Kennedy, a long-time supporter of Mr. Schmidt, will speak on the gastronomic benefits of raw dairy.

"The work that people like me are involved with is all about preserving the artisan nature of food in food production with the aim of encouraging food culture," he said, adding his support for Mr. Schmidt's quest for exoneration.

Since being the target of an undercover investigation and very public raid on his farm in 2006, Mr. Schmidt has become the face of raw milk advocacy, refusing to stop production, earning himself a $55,000 fine in October for defying a court order, and has united a small, dedicated band of supporters behind him in his quest.

"He's like an endangered species," said Olga Shibanova, a cow-share member and mother of three, after proceedings had ended on Wednesday. "People like him need to be protected."

After emigrating from Russia 15 years ago, Ms. Shibanova spent a decade in Ontario literally knocking on doors searching for someone that could provide unpasteurized dairy for her family until finding Mr. Schmidt. Other cow-share members were just as emphatic, sending scores of pages of first-hand accounts to court with the milk man.

About 150 people have purchased a membership in the cow-share co-operative, paying a membership fee of $300 for partial ownership in one of the 30 cows kept at Mr. Schmidt's southern Ontario Glencolton Farms.

While Mr. Schmidt contends he does not sell milk, instead providing it to members at a $3-per-litre fee to cover the cost of raising and milking the animals, prosecution has argued the cow-share program is an attempt to skirt around the anti-sale and distribution laws that boils down to a sale and distribution business.

The second phase of Mr. Schmidt's trial is a constitutional challenge, in which he challenges the milk laws as an assault on the personal freedom to drink raw milk if one so chooses. He said raw milk consumption should be similar to smoking, where those that know the risks and wish to do it anyway should be allowed.

"The issue is whether people without a share of the cow have a right to buy the milk," he said. "It's a national debate."

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