Consumers Rights On Raw Milk Debate Go Unchallenged!

Home pasteurized milk

Home pasteurization is easily done on a stove top. Why then is it illegal to buy?

Ontario made pasteurization of milk mandatory in 1938, but Health Canada did not make it mandatory until 1991. Canada bans the sale of raw milk but not its consumption. Although it is illegal to sell raw milk in Canada, consumers can own a share in the ‘source’ cow, which is what dairy farmer Michael Schmidt’s customers do. On Thursday, January 21st, 2010, Justice of the Peace Paul Kowarsky acquitted Michael Schmidt on 19 charges relating to the distribution of his raw milk. Because Schmidt had made diligent efforts to keep his cow-share program operating “within the confines and the spirit of the legislation”, JP Kowarsky concluded that the alleged offence fell into the category of ‘strict liability’; that is, criminal intent (‘mens rea’) could not be proved.

Schmidt had been prepared to do battle on a human rights level, and challenge the statutes on the ground that they violated his basic human right to ‘life, liberty and security of person’. In November of 2009, the Canadian Constitution Foundation (CCF)—an independent, non-partisan, registered charity—announced its support for Schmidt on the grounds that consumers have the rights to choose what they put in their bodies, freedom of contract, and freedom from government regulation that is ‘arbitrary, unreasonable, unnecessary and unfair’. Even the existing cow-share system is an unnecessarily complex response to overly restrictive legislation. However, with Schmidt’s full acquittal, these complex legal issues may go unchallenged.

The Ontario government may choose to let the ruling stand, and live with the reality of cow-share arrangements. However, this is not satisfying the general public, because many people who would like to be able to access raw milk are unable to access a cow-share program; consequently, they have approached the CCF to see if they could pressure the government to change the law. According to Karen Selick (litigation director the CCF), if the government of Ontario wants to take the matter further, it has three options:

1. The government could appeal this decision. This would be a risky move because there is nothing to ensure it would be successful; moreover, it could backfire and escalate the confrontation of citizens and legislators. Schmidt and his long struggle have gained wide public support: the more people learn about his plight and educate themselves on the scientific and potential health benefits of consuming raw milk, the more people will want free access to it.

2. The government could create new legislation that specifically outlaws cow-sharing and/or the consumption of raw milk. However, there is strong opinion that, should the government choose this option, it would be met by public outrage, particularly from the burgeoning ‘food freedom’ movement. Furthermore, this would seem to constitute a breach of human rights at a most basic level, so the government would likely find themselves facing the CCF in court. In addition, policing the personal consumption of raw milk would be costly, if not impossible. Is someone going to be assigned to spy on farmers to ensure they are not sneaking a contraband tipple in the privacy of their own milking parlours?

3. The government could develop a regulatory procedure that would facilitate the sale of certified, safe, raw milk for interested consumers without requiring a cow-sharing arrangement. Schmidt and others—like Ontario raw milk advocate James McLaren—have offered to work with government officials to help develop the certification process. As Selick said in her article ‘Got Milk Justice’ (National Post, January 26, 2010), “Michigan is doing it right now. Why shouldn’t Ontario?”

Option 3 would be not only the most satisfactory solution for consumers, but also the most democratic.

Link to The Bovine: is a blog about rights around access to raw milk ,and chronicles the saga of Michael Schmidt, of Glencolton Farms, and his cow share holders with the authorities over the issue of access to raw milk.


Filed under Educational, Ethical farming, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Milk preservation techniques, personal food sovereignty, Politics of Food

18 responses to “Consumers Rights On Raw Milk Debate Go Unchallenged!

  1. Never drink it myself, but I’m in favor of people being able to make their own decisions, and I’m doubly in favor of the government butting out.

    good to see you posting again. We missed you

    • I was a bit nervous about drinking it myself! But, when you can talk to the cow about your worries and she assures you that she has access to green pastures, good feed, a nice warm place to sleep, and is not being shot full of unnecessary antibiotics, bovine growth hormone, or eating slaughterhouse floor scrapings, believe me the fears wash away. And you know what? Drinking storebought becomes difficult! By comparison to fresh milk, it tastes gross!

      Thanks for the nice words. I’ve missed the regular contact myself!


  2. LittleFfarm Dairy

    Good to see you back in the Blogosphere!

    As you know we drink the raw milk from our goats – & have never felt healthier. Here in the UK it is also illegal to sell raw milk for human consumption; we can only sell it from the farm gate as ‘puppy milk’. People should be free to make their own informed choices, surely…?

    So what’s the latest on the Ranch – have you relocated yet? Exciting times!

  3. thebovine

    Actually, the latest in the Michael Schmidt saga is that the province has decided to appeal the Jan 21 acquittal:

  4. K

    Oops that was as clear as mud, when i said ‘I never drink it myself’ i meant milk. I haven’t drunk a glass of milk in over 20 years. One of my kids loves it the other had eczema and snot until we moved her to soya.

    Even cheese and béchamel don’t really agree with me – but being a greedy bastard I tend to eat them anyway.

    I’d defiantly use raw for cooking and feed it to my son, for all the reason you’ve outlined.


  5. The distribution of raw milk is illegal because it poses a public health risk if contaminated with pathogenic bacteria. TB, E. coli O157H7, Brucella, and several other nasty bacteria that can make humans very ill, cause permanent disability, or in rare cases, death, also live in cows and are transferred rather easily to milk. This risk is low, but it does exist.

    To frame this debate as simply an evil, restrictive government allied with corrupt, greedy agribusiness to wantonly restrict the rights of poor, downtrodden citizens is to miss a large part of the discussion. This issue is much more complex, and a discussion of it needs to attempt to engage this complexity.

    The public has a very low tolerance for contaminated food and water (witness the Listeria outbreak, Walkerton, North Battleford). If raw milk was available and an outbreak occurred, the farmer, distributer, and the consumer would not be the ones held accountable. There would be an outcry about the failure of government to protect citizens. In some respects, the government is taking the easy way out, but I can’t really say I blame them.

    You are totally right in saying the health of the herd plays a large role in whether or not any milk produced will be contaminated by pathogens or not. However, it is naive to suppose that every raw milk producer would maintain their herd in absolutely peak condition, and test it often enough to make as sure as possible that the milk produced was safe solely out of the goodness of their heart. If raw milk distribution was legal, it would require a level of government interference in terms of regulations, testing, and surveillance to ensure that the public is as safe as possible.

    This is not just an individual decision. When dealing with communicable diseases, the decisions one individual makes can affect the entire community. If an individual chooses to drink raw milk, knowing there is a small risk they will come down with a milk-borne disease, they are not just putting themselves at risk, they are putting their entire community at risk. Should they aquire something from the raw milk, it might not make them very ill, but if they pass it on to a member of their community who is weak or immunocompromised, the consequenses for that individual could be dire. In balancing your rights to do what you want, you must also balance the rights of your neighbours.

    Raw milk is safest drunk straight out of the cow. Bacteria grow very quickly, and if there are pathogens in the milk, drinking a small number of nasty bacteria may not cause disease. But the times and distances involved in distribution allow for bacterial growth to a point where there are enough pathogens in the milk to cause disease. One of the positive points for raw milk (it contains live bacteria that can be very helpful for balancing gut flora), is also one of its weaknesses; because it contains living organisms, how safe it is to drink can change depending on how it is handled.

    I am not personally opposed to raw milk. In fact, if I could access some that I knew came from a healthy herd, and that I knew was very fresh, I would drink it. But the debate over raw milk and distribution is very complex, and there are compelling arguments for maintaining the status quo.

    • Monica

      If raw milk is so dangerous, then why are farmers allowed to consume it themselves and feed it to their own children?

      Either it’s a public health menace, and no one should drink it, or it’s not, and people should be free to decide what they want to put into their bodies.

      I’d like the government to stop thinking it can make these decisions for me. I have yet to meet a bureaucrat smart enough to run my life.

    • Monica

      When you point out that raw milk is safest when fresh from the cow, you reach the heart of the issue.

      People fighting for the ability to sell raw milk are not looking to abolish pasteurization.

      The reason for the pushback is that large scale milk companies will not be able to compete in raw milk sales. Period. They cannot mix milk from so many farms together, package it, ship it, and deliver it to consumers and maintain food safety.

      Raw milk is so threatening to large business because the sale can realistically only happen directly between the farmer, (who is incentized to offer a product that won’t harm his customer) and the buyer, whose incentive is to buy from the cleanest, most well treated dairy animals he can find. The middlemen and delivery networks are cut out completely.

      It is not a food safety issue, it is a market access issue, pure and simple.

      • I agree with you that a large part of the debate is about the distribution infrastructure. But you cannot take food safety out of the equation entirely. There is a small risk of milk-born disease, even when drinking raw milk straight out of the udder. There is no way to reduce that risk to zero.

        And I totally agree with you that the milk distribution infrastructure has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and I have genuine concerns about big agribusiness and our food supply.

        That being said, raw milk is a very complex issue, and attempts to paint it in black and white terms are misguided. It is by turns, a public health issue, a food distribution issue, a political issue, a philosophical issue…and any meaningful attempt to confront the issue must take this complexity into account.

        Personally, I tend to think that the public health concerns about raw milk trump other concerns. If that makes me evil incarnate, I’m willing to bear that burden, if it saves some poor child from kidney failure due to an E. coli infection…

  6. Beach Bum is voicing a lot of my concerns. I am only now learning about better eating habits, organic methods, and eating local. I don’t pretend to know what I’m talking about but perhaps you’ll value my perspective – that of a consumer’s.

    I don’t think that I can trust a farmer to keep his herd in tip top shape. Not because of a lack of faith in his/her good intentions but because I used to work for a man who raised steer and who taught me that cows are especially volatile animals and incredibly susceptible to diseases.

    I don’t care if a farmer wants to risk his own life and drink his own milk, but I think raw milk should be treated like the distribution of a deadly drug until we come up with a better ways to manage raw dairy products and ensure the safety of the public. Raw milk shouldn’t ever be fed to children if there’s any risk of them being harmed. The idea of us, all of us, being responsible for a child’s death is heart-rending.

    This is sorta random but didn’t the famous female author Jane Austin die from drinking raw milk?

    I’d love to be proven wrong, believe me, but right now raw milk sounds like an incredible hazard to the general public.

  7. Monica

    Lacey and Beach Bum, I hear what you’re saying regarding safety concerns. I say: you are free to purchase pasteurized milk if that is what you want. If you don’t trust a farmer to take care of his livestock, then by all means avoid raw milk. That’s the best part about having choices. I humbly ask that you trust others to make the best choice for themselves.

    I was raised on raw milk, and rarely drank the stuff from the store until the last dairy cow died when I was about 10, and my grandparents decided they didn’t want the bother any longer. I certainly never suffered from TB, or E.coli, or any other horrid calamity. On the contrary, my family and I thrived on the stuff. To this day, I can still remember the taste and consistency, it was marvelous. Of course, my grandfather prided himself on a fastidiously clean milking parlor and pampered dairy cows. Why should he not have been able to give or sell his extra milk to a neighbor?

    The regulations against raw milk and other local food create a false sense of security. Most people are lulled into a feeling of safety because they have been assured that the government can reliably monitor the food supply. There will always be some risk to food, even food that is deemed to have passed all government regulations. For example, see recent outbreaks of listeria from cold cuts, salmonella from peanut butter, or e. coli from spinach, all from government-approved facilities. Government is incapable of legislating true integrity- all the regulations in the world cannot actually force a worker to wash his hands if he chooses to avoid doing so.

    Most food is messy, especially once it’s run the gauntlet of the normal distribution network. Take a look at the FDA-approved levels of “dirt, hair, excreta, non-invasive insects, machinery mold” in the food we eat and tell me that raw milk needs to be treated like a dangerous drug.

    I know I sound anti-government, but I do agree that many public food safety initiatives have done a lot of good. For example, due to decades of extensive testing and culling cattle infected with Mycobacterium bovis, the risk of contracting tuberculosis from raw milk is vanishingly small in North America (outside of parts of Manitoba, Minnesota and Michigan where infected native deer populations can still contaminate cattle herds).

  8. I’d never tried fresh cow milk until the four years I spent in Central America and a friend, when I was living in Alaska, who had a herd of milk goats.

    Makes having to go to the supermarket a real bummer, now knowing what I’ve missed out on all those previous years.

    …It never ceases to amaze me how much big government gets in the way of hundreds of years of healthly practices, and successful private business.

  9. et

    Consumers should be allowed to make informed choices, rather than all choice being regulated to the ground. Without small, local producers we are building very vulnerable systems.

    One outbreak can shut a plant or spread disease/death much farther than an individual farmer would be able to.

  10. I find our New York State laws to be much friendlier than many when it comes to growing/raising/selling, but unfortunately, our milk regs are just as described here. Centuries of folks drinking un-processed milk, and all of the sudden, we know better. Ugh.

  11. mmm,

    drinking a fresh glass of Home on the Range milk bought with shares. Will make some yummy yogurt next… I swear raw milk is why I have such strong bones, and for women that is important.

  12. Dawn

    To Beach Bum: Historically Jane Austen was believed to have died from Addison’s disease. Recently, there has been an assertion that she may have died instead from bovine TB, which can be transmitted to humans by raw dairy products as well as undercooked meat or contact with infected cattle.

    I would be interested to see factual information about people passing these food-borne illnesses to others. You admit that the risk is small of food-borne illness. The risk becomes even smaller when considering human-to-human transmission as a public health risk. Every choice has a risk for the individual and the public, including eating foods produced by large corporations with heavy government regulation. Like the vaccine debate, the question is who gets to choose which risk a person takes? The government or the individual? The government can not guarantee us a perfectly healthy environment or body. All it can do is manage risk according to a bureaucratic set of priorities. I maintain that I should be able to manage my own risks according to my own priorities – that is liberty. The other is bondage to a bureaucracy whose motives are questionable at best.

  13. Pingback: Agister’s wife assaulted by officials in Edmonton Alberta raw milk seizure? « The Bovine

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