The Fate of Raw Milk in Toronto

For those following dairy farmer Michael Schmidt's court proceedings (dubbed the Raw Milk Trial), the fate of raw milk in Toronto has not yet been decided. After 6 days in a Newmarket court last month, the final arguments have been postponed until May (for Schmidt) and June (for the prosecution).

Since authorities first began their investigations of Schmidt's Glencolton Farm over a decade ago, there has been a whole lot of fuss over a food we don't even really need to be consuming in the first place.

Don't get me wrong, I love milk. And cheese - please - I can't live without the stuff. But the reality of being mammals is that we don't really need our mother's milk once we've gained the ability to eat solid foods, let alone the milk of another animal.

In fact "lactase persistence" (the continued presence of lactase, the enzyme that helps break down the lactose in milk, into adulthood) is a genetic mutation that occurred centuries ago and has since helped milk become engrained in our diets and nutritional doctrine, particularly in the Western world.

But engrained it is, and now the debate turns to whether or not we Ontarians should be able to procure raw, unpasteurized milk. So what's the big deal? We can procure raw meats and shellfish. I mean, no one's being hauled off to court for selling carpaccio or oysters on the half shell are they? Consumers know the risks of consuming these foods.

As far as raw milk goes, I am not debating the merits of pasteurization for food safety - they are quite clear and very important. And pasteurization is especially needed in an industrial dairy system such as ours, where milk from thousands of cows (coming from varying states of health and hygienic conditions) is pooled together and shipped hundreds of miles before it can be heat treated to remove the various pathogens it might have picked up along the way.

From what I have read, Ontario supporters of the raw milk movement aren't suggesting that it start being distributed to the mass market on the same scale that pasteurized milk is.

Generally speaking, raw milk is produced at smaller farms to be consumed by local communities. Farms where a relatively small herd can feed off pasture and are therefore not susceptible to illnesses such as ruminal acidosis and laminitis, among many others. Because they are not in cramped living conditions, the animals are generally cleaner.

Schmidt's farm, for example, has ranged from 4 cows at its smallest to about 30 at its largest. The cows live outside and graze on pasture from May to November. In the winter they live in the barn, and eat fodder exclusively from the farm itself. Many raw milk drinkers have personal relationships with the farmers, and have seen the conditions in which the milk they drink and feed their families is produced.

In several US states, raw milk producers are subject to daily inspection and testing to monitor bacteria levels. So if raw milk CAN be produced free from pathogens and fit for consumption, then why not develop regulations to monitor its production here in Canada, much like we already do for pasteurized milk?

My guess is the lack of cost efficiencies and economies of scale. Because there are only a few players in the pasteurized milk game, it's easier to make sure the final product is safe. But as I mentioned above, raw milk tends to come from small farms servicing their local communities, meaning regular inspections would be much more costly.

So is raw milk ABSOLUTELY UNCONDITIONALLY unsafe to drink? No, but pasteurized milk isn't absolutely unconditionally SAFE to drink either. Both raw and pasteurized milk have the chance of becoming contaminated after its left the cow (or sheep, or goat, or yak, or water buffalo etc) or been pasteurized. But the reality is that the chances for raw milk contamination are higher. As long as people are aware of that, why shouldn't they be able to choose?

One of the biggest arguments against the right to choose is the cost society bears if the raw milk drinkers get sick, or if the bacteria they carry makes others sick. Suggestions that people opt-out of OHIP if they choose to drink raw milk is crazy. Do we make smokers or excessive drinkers opt-out of OHIP? What about people who eat too much, or don't get enough exercise? Where do you draw the line?

There is a lot riding on the outcome of the Raw Milk Trial and public debate around the topic is fierce. Until June, you can probably find Michael Schmidt on his farm milking the cows.

Photo by Sean Bennell from the blogTO Flickr pool

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