The issue of raw milk is one that pits farmers seeking the legal right to produce raw milk for consumers against health officials who claim raw milk is a health hazard.
In a controversial ruling the The Supreme Court of British Columbia granted the Fraser Health Authority an inunction against a B.C. farm called Home on the Range, shutting down the farm's raw milk production. Justice Miriam Gropper wrote in a statement that farm owner and operator, Alice Jongerden was "willingly causing a health hazard" through her activities.
Jongerden used the share-holder system developed by Ontario raw milk producer, Michael Schmitd. Jongerden added value to her service by providing share-holders with cream, butter and yogurt as well as the raw milk. One unconfirmed source said Jongeden's battle with health authorities began after a baby, allegedly given the raw milk, contracted a gastro-intestinal illness.
Whether or not true, the legal battle against Jongerden started in 2008, when health officials gave the organic farmer a cease and desist order, which she appealed. Just before the hearing in February, health authorities issued a warning in January stating milk product samples from Home on the Range tested positive for fecal contamination.
Jongerden did not have a legal representative during the February hearing.
An unnamed health authority spokesperson told media the ruling against Jongerden was welcomed because “The risk of disease from consuming these unpasteurized products is high and can cause serious illness in people, especially young children, older folks and people with weakened immune systems."
Schmidt's model allows the owners of the livestock to drink raw milk in Ontario, while still abiding by federal legislation which prevents farmers from selling or giving away raw milk. It is legal for farmers to drink the raw produced by their livestock. The Province of Ontario has been trying to shut down Schmidt's operation for years, but a hearing in January cleared Schmidt. The Province of Ontario has appealed that decision.
The fight for the right to consume raw milk has become a battle for the right to decide what farmers can produce as well as a consumers' right to choose what they will eat and drink. The fight pits the powerful dairy association and health authorities against small-scale farmers like Schmidt and Jongerden.
However, south of the border, legislators in Idaho are debating a bill that will allow "expanded raw milk operations." The bill would allow for farmers to sell shares in livestock so that people who want raw milk can drink raw milk after purchasing a share. Under the terms of the bill, the Idaho State Department of Agriculture would test raw milk submitted by farmers to ensure the milk is free of disease.
In Wisconsin, the sale of raw milk is being considered. Under the proposed legislation, the milk will only be sold at the farm where it was produced, and farmers can be sued by customers who became ill from the milk. The milk business is big business in Wisconsin, and the powerful Wisconsin Farm Bureau opposes the sale of raw milk. Dairy farmer and spokesman for the Farm Bureau's Dairy Committee, Melvin Pittman told press“The primary reason for our opposition to SB 434 is our overall concern for our $26 billion dairy industry. If a person becomes ill from drinking raw milk, it is not only unpasteurized milk that gets a bad image, but all milk and dairy products. Dairy farmers have invested millions of dollars promoting milk and dairy products, and we can’t afford to have an incident adversely affect consumption. Whether food scares are real or perceived, farmers are the first to see a decline in the prices they received for the livestock, crops or commodities they produce.”
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Raw milk supporters say that unpasteurized milk has many health benefits while the government unequivocally states that raw milk is a health hazard. Speaking to a crowd of raw milk supporters in New Westminster, B.C. in February, Michael Schmidt summed up the argument, saying “We are in the forefront of a major battle, in a positive sense, to stand up for what seems to be lost. There was the Women’s Rights Movement, now there is the Food Rights Movement. We are demanding that we are responsible for our own bodies.”
The federal government holds that raw milk poses a serious -- potentially deadly -- health risk to consumers due to potential contamination with bacteria such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli. "... any possible benefits are far outweighed by the serious risk of illness from drinking raw milk. Pasteurization is an extremely important process in order to make sure that the milk Canadians drink is safe. The number of foodborne diseases from milk has dramatically decreased since pasteurization of milk was made mandatory by Health Canada in 1991."
Raw milk advocates point to instances where pasteurized milk has caused illness after being contaminated with bacteria after pasteurization.
The recall of some 10,000 food products in North America due to possible contamination with Salmonella reveals a bit of a double standard. While health authorities readily impugn raw milk as being "potentially deadly" due to bacterial contamination; Canadian health authorities are defending their slow response in recalling the Salmonella-contaminated food products, claiming the "danger to consumers is low." The low risk is claimed because many of the contaminated food products will be heated, killing the Salmonella. However, many products recalled do not require cooking, such as potato chips and a variety of pre-made dips.
Cheeses made with raw milk are allowed to be made and sold in Canada.