© 2009  Karen Selick

An edited version of this article first appeared in the January 26, 2009 issue of the National Post.
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Legalize Raw Milk

Last month, Ontario farmer Michael Schmidt was sentenced to pay $55,000 for contempt of court.  He had persisted in delivering unpasteurized milk to the members of his cow-sharing program, contrary to a court order.  He goes to trial on January 26 on his main charges of violating the Milk Act and related legislation.
What’s a person to do when the laws themselves are contemptible, and the people who hold the power to change them are behaving contemptibly?
Twenty years ago, Toronto furrier Paul Magder answered that question this way:  you continue doing what you believe is right until the lawmakers finally smarten up.  Magder racked up huge contempt fines merely by opening his store on Sundays. The province finally yielded to public pressure and legalized Sunday shopping. The sky didn’t fall, and today Ontarians take Sunday shopping for granted.  
I see Michael Schmidt as the Paul Magder of this era—the unsung hero who will make it possible for us, twenty years hence, to say, “Was it not always thus?”  
I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time reading up on raw milk to avoid embarrassing myself in case it was simply a harebrained idea. Having done so, I’m convinced that Schmidt is right and the lawmakers are wrong.  
In a nutshell, the position in favour of raw milk is this.  Pasteurization is not necessary to ensure milk safety.  While it may have been the simplest way for inspectors to ensure that certain pathogens were killed back in 1938 when Ontario made it mandatory, we now have better ways of testing to ensure the absence of disease-causing organisms in milk. Pasteurization doesn’t eliminate harmful bacteria, it just kills them—or at least, most of them. Dead bacteria floating in your milk create their own panoply of health problems, most notably allergic reactions. Meanwhile, unpasteurized milk produced by grass-fed cows under proper hygenic conditions contains beneficial bacteria and digestive enzymes that can markedly improve human health.  Such milk is also, apparently, quite delicious, although more expensive than factory-farm milk. Consumers should have the option to choose whichever product they prefer.
Ontario Agriculture Minister Leona Dombrowsky is one of those contemptibly-behaving lawmakers who apparently has not seen fit to do the research I’ve done even though she’s the person responsible for this portfolio. Her position on raw milk is that legalizing it would be “tantamount to manslaughter.”  
Does Dombrowsky really think the governments of the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Germany and 27 states in the U.S., all of which allow the sale of raw milk, are committing manslaughter?   In parts of Europe, certified raw milk is even sold in vending machines.  European consumers aren’t dropping like flies.
What level of safety would satisfy Dombrowsky and her Ontario government colleagues?  If their answer is that only a history of zero illnesses is acceptable, then the government should ban all milk—pasteurized, too.  The U.S. Center for Disease Control documented 41 illness outbreaks affecting 19,531 people attributable to pasteurized milk and milk products between 1980 and 2005.
And milk is far from the worst offender.  Seafood, beef, poultry, pork and even vegetables cause significantly more illness than milk.  Within recent memory in Ontario, consumers have been warned not to eat  tomatoes, mung bean sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, lettuce and spinach.  But the government has not reacted by banning such foods altogether, or insisting that they only be sold pre-cooked, as they insist with milk. That would be absurd.  Rational remedial action consists of tracking down and recalling the contaminated product, and testing diligently to prevent recurrences.
We allow food processors to deliberately add bacteria to milk to produce products such as yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, sour cream and cheese.  Obviously, we trust these manufacturers to ensure that the bacteria they inject are the beneficial ones, not the killer ones.  If the precautions they use are sufficient, surely there must be comparable precautions for raw milk.  Michael Schmidt has, in fact, produced raw milk for 25 years without a single incident of illness.
Given these facts, it’s incumbent upon the government to at least conduct an inquiry into whether the laws passed 70 years ago could stand updating to take advantage of technological change. Conservative MPPs suggested this in December, 2006, but Liberals responded that it was a “crazy idea.”  They’ve never heard of progress, apparently.  Contemptible? Absolutely.



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       February 8, 2009