The Debate over Milk – The risk of raw
As many Canadians adopt new health-conscious diets like gluten-free and vegetarian, another food trend is raising awareness in the court system – the consumption of raw milk.
While selling or distributing raw milk is illegal in Canada under the Federal Food and Drug Act, farmers like Michael Schmidt have found a way to get around that and still provide it to the public.
Under Canadian law, dairy farmers are free to consume the raw milk produced on their own farms. Schmidt has taken advantage of this loophole by creating a farm-share program that allows people to purchase shares in the ownership of cows.
Their part ownership of the cow then gives them a right to the milk produced by that cow.
The Canadian government has stepped in however, and in 2006 Schmidt’s farm was raided and he faces 20 charges related to violations of the Milk Act and the Ontario Health Protection Program.
In 2010 a Justice of the Peace ruled that the farm-share program was exempt from the law, but the Ontario Court appealed.
Schmidt was then convicted of 15 provincial offenses in 2011. He appealed, but in March 2014 the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the conviction.
The Court says Schmidt’s farm-share program is nothing more than a way to circumvent the rules. Schmidt plans to take the case to the Supreme Court and despite a court order to cease production, he continues.
What is Pasteurization?
Pasteurization is a process that heats milk to at least 63 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes, and has been considered mandatory in Canada since 1991. Raw milk is not pasteurized.
Health Canada and the World Health Organization say pasteurization kills dangerous pathogens and they caution that raw milk leads to an increased risk of serious illness from bacteria such as Salmonella, E. Coli and Listeria.
Those bacteria can cause fever, vomiting, diarrhea, kidney failure, miscarriage and death. The Canadian government says children, pregnant women or anyone with a weakened immune system are at higher risk.
The Case for Raw
Those who drink raw milk say it increases cognitive functions, is easier to digest and has higher levels of nutrients. They also say pasteurization kills essential bacteria necessary for proper digestion.
The science behind all these claims is debatable. Many scientists say the effect of pasteurization on nutrient levels is negligible, though studies have shown strong links to a reduction of asthma and allergies in younger children.
Stephanie Booker has been drinking raw milk for over a year.
“Our family was introduced to raw milk from my mom because she heard about the benefits for people with autism,” she says. “My “nephew” has Asperger’s and we find that he is a lot more manageable when he drinks it.”
Is Raw Milk Dangerous?
Each country establishes its own milk regulations. Canada, Australia and the United States have the most stringent laws, but Canada is the only G8 country with a full ban on raw milk. Raw milk is readily available across Europe and Great Britain, and Germany even sells it in vending machines.
With such opposing views and because farmers can legally consume their own raw milk, Canadians want to know the true level of risk involved.
“Raw milk is not inherently dangerous,” says Robert Campbell whose family farm has produced milk for generations. “What makes raw milk dangerous is that you can’t ensure standards of cleanliness on the farm where it comes from.”
The Raw Milk Institute in California says raw milk inside of the animal does not generally contain dangerous levels of bacteria, but if the milking process is not done correctly, the milk can become contaminated by bacteria in the environment.
Robert and Janet, like 90 per cent of Canadian dairy farmers surveyed in 2008, say they regularly drank raw milk from their farm.
“We always drank raw milk from the farm,” says Robert. “But we were confident in our farm because we always scored the highest levels of certification from the Dairy Board.”
Despite this, Janet refused to drink raw milk while she was pregnant for each of their three children.
“She wouldn’t drink raw milk at a while she was pregnant,” said Robert. “There is always a risk.”
Robert says there are many elements during the milking process that can affect the safety of milk.
“The cleanliness of the cow, proper washing of udders and milkers and strict monitoring of tank temperatures are all really important,” he says. “Regulations are place are to make sure that these rules are abided by and all milk is safe to drink.”
In a farm-share program, these types of regulations are not monitored. Although shareholders are free to visit the farm to inspect it, many raw milk consumers don’t.
Stephanie says she has never seen the farm where she gets her milk.
“Our family has a share in a Guelph farm and my mom has been there,” says Stephanie. “She says it is very clean and really well maintained.”
On the other hand, Karen Little* receives her milk through a friend’s share in a London area farm. She has never been to the farm.
“I don’t know where the farm is because I know it is a really secret business,” she says. “I just trust my friend who knows the farmer, and I really believe in the product.”
Those who drink raw milk argue that the ban is a way for the government to retain power over the milk industry, but the Government of Canada says it is to maintain food safety.
There may be truth in both arguments, and perhaps what is needed is a compromise.
Nadine Ijaz of the BC Centre for Disease Control says the government can only place such limitations on food if there is justifiable risk to society. Since current research no longer justifies the designation of raw milk as a health hazard, she says Canadians should be allowed the choice.
Most raw milk drinkers simply want that choice.
“I can’t understand why the government has the right to tell me that drinking milk is dangerous,” says Stephanie, “but I can go to a McDonalds and see a pregnant woman downing a Big Mac. The government doesn’t say anything about that, but they know that’s not healthy for her baby.”
Reformists say that what is needed is the same level of standards applied to raw milk production as what’s already applied to the production of pasteurized milk. With proper standards in place, the production of raw milk would become a lot safer.
Even if it were legal to drink raw milk in today’s laws, Robert says he wouldn’t do it unless he produced it himself.
“There is nothing wrong with drinking raw milk,” Robert says, “so long as it’s clean. But right now, you just can’t guarantee that.”