Milky justice

Last week’s Ontario court case decision on the Michael Schmidt/raw milk issue – which has been dragging on since Schmidt had his farm raided in 2006 – has lactivores bubbling over with questions. Schmidt had been charged with illegally selling unpasteurized milk to people who chose to drink it, and exercised their choice by the only means legally open to them, by subscribing to a ‘cow share‘ enterprise. This means buying a share of a cow and contributing to its upkeep, in return for which receiving a quantity of raw milk. There is a similar system – Home on the Range Dairy – in BC which has been subjected to a sustained attack by our own public health buttinskis in recent weeks.

One part of the public health attack has been to publish a misleading press release that mentions the presence of fecal matter in the dairy’s milk. What the release fails to mention is that fecal matter is present in just about everything we eat, drink and touch, including soft drinks, spinach, government-inspected beef, and public health-approved pasteurized milk and milk products. It can certainly cause serious health problems, but the important distinction where testing is concerned is the fecal count, not the mere presence of fecal matter, and the press release is curiously shy of mentioning this. Nor do the public health officials claim to have tested for or found E. coli, which is, according to the Food Safety Network, the best way of testing for fecal contamination. In fact the whole manner of testing in this instance is considered highly biased.

Raw milk is a murky subject, much debated. It is hard to separate the views of the pro-pasteurization side from their vested interests in industrial scale production – which can by their very nature cause so many health problems that some kind of public protection is certainly called for. Most of the pro-raw milk defense comes from the Weston A. Price Foundation, which is not universally revered, but does have many sane and healthy supporters. There are genuine causes for concern about raw milk, as there are for production of any animal food likely to be consumed by people with delicate immune systems.

My personal experience with raw milk was in Italy, where the law allowed me to purchase raw milk from a machine in a shopping mall – the provision being I had to fill the bottle myself. There was a large sign posted on the machine warning pregnant women that raw milk could be dangerous, but I saw at least one near-term consumer ignore this. The milk was fabulous, rich and flavourful and made impressive custards and puddings. When we visited Epoisse producers in France, we were given a tasting and demonstration at which it was explained that the runniness of a ripe Epoisse is due to EU and North American market requirements that they use pasteurized milk. When the cheese is properly and traditionally made with raw milk, the paste shouldn’t collapse, but be soft and firm. Pasteurization also kills off many of the microflora that give any artisanal cheese depth, texture and flavour.

So. Canadian raw milk consumers are rejoicing in what seems like a great victory in the Schmidt case, but is in fact only a local affirmation by the Ontario Court of Justice that he operated within the law in Ontario. It’s unlikely the ruling will give strength to either side of the pasteurization argument, as the presiding judge made clear in his closing remarks:

I wish to make it perfectly clear that my decision to acquit the defendant on all charges-
* In no way stands for the proposition that henceforth it is legal to market unpasteurized milk and milk products in the Province of Ontario;
* In no way purports to undermine or invalidate the milk marketing legislation in this Province, which has been held to be valid legislation byt he Ontario Divisional Court in Allan v. Ontario (Attorney General) (supra);
* In no way supports either side of the debate on whether the consumption of unpasteurized milk or milk products is healthy or constitutes a health hazard 

CBC has a poll you can take to share your opinion on whether or not people should be allowed to drink raw milk. Take it here.

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