- Toronto Star -
In a surprise move, a Newmarket court ruled Thursday that dairy farmer Michael Schmidt is allowed to continue his raw milk co-operative and that his venture does not break laws against selling unpasteurized milk.
Government officials had little to say about the decision Thursday afternoon. But dairy experts say the ruling will spur more cow-share programs to form and encourage the underground co-ops already operating in Ontario to surface. And, they say, it will likely force the government to change its laws to allow the sale and distribution of raw milk in the province.
Food activists, chefs, proponents of the local and slow food movements and those who scorn excessive government regulations see the ruling as a victory for their causes. But few were more thrilled than Schmidt’s dedicated contingent of some 200 cow-share members.
“This is beyond our wildest hopes,” said Judith McGill, who has been a cow-share member at Schmidt’s Glencolton Farms for four years. “We are now out and we will build.”
Toronto chef and restaurateur Jamie Kennedy was one of the more than 100 people waiting outside the courthouse who greeted news of the ruling with cheers, hugs and happy hand shakes.
“This is a wonderful first step because it recognizes that raw milk is in our society, that there are people who freely choose to engage and feed their families this product,” Kennedy told the Star Thursday evening from his Gilead Café and Bistro. The next step, he said, is to fight to make raw milk available to anyone who wants it in Ontario. He hopes one day to be able to serve foods made from raw milk in his restaurants.
“It would contribute to the experience of my patrons who have come to my place to eat,” he said. “And that’s where we are going in our sophistication in food culture.”
Art Hill, professor and chair of the University of Guelph’s Department of Food Science, said the ruling, which provides a legal way for Ontarians to consume raw milk and for farmers to sell their farm-fresh product, will likely prompt changes in the dairy industry.
“This ruling signals that it is time to create a system where the sale of raw milk is legalized, but controlled,” said Hill. “We have to work now at finding ways to make raw milk available as safely as we can.”
Hill noted the sale of raw milk is not uncommon in other jurisdictions, including the United Kingdom. About half of U.S. states have legislation that allows consumers access to raw milk, either directly from farms or at grocery stores.
Justice of the Peace Paul Kowarsky ruled Schmidt’s cow-share program is exempt from legislation set out in Ontario’s Health Protection and Promotion Act and the Milk Act. He found Schmidt not guilty on 19 charges under the two acts. The verdict came one year after Schmidt’s trial began in January 2009. The 55-year-old farmer defended himself against the charges.
In his 40-page ruling, which took almost three hours for him to read to the court, Kowarsky said it was beyond his jurisdictional authority to abolish or amend the legislation that requires all milk sold or distributed in Ontario to be pasteurized.
Kowarsky said he focused his decision on whether or not Schmidt’s cow-share program circumvented the law.
Schmidt has long maintained he does not break the law by providing milk to the cow’s owners, all of whom purchase a portion of the cow and pay to board the animal at Glencolton Farms. The prohibition on raw milk in Ontario does not apply to farmers drinking raw milk from their own cows.
Kowarsky ruled Schmidt’s cow-share program did not break the law because the farmer only provided milk and raw milk products to his members, did not advertise or market his operation, and that cow-share members were aware they consumed milk at their own risk. He said it was also essential to note “There is no evidence that anyone ever became ill as a result of the consumption of the defendant’s milk products ...”
Hill said consumers need to be aware the purported benefits of raw milk do not outweigh its well-established and substantial risks. Milk that has not been pasteurized can contain potentially deadly pathogens, including Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli 0157:H7, the same strain that killed seven people in Walkerton in 2000.
Warnings against drinking raw milk are regularly issued by Health Canada, medical associations and local health units. Officials maintain the laws are in place to protect public health.
According to the Ontario’s ministry of health, there were 145 cases of reportable enteric illness associated with unpasteurized milk in Ontario between 2005 and 2009.
Spokespersons for two local health units, the health ministry and Ontario’s ministry of agriculture, food and rural affairs said each is carefully reviewing the court’s decision.
“There is an appeal period and we are considering our next steps, which may include an appeal,” said health ministry spokesperson Andrew Morrison.
The Dairy Farmers of Ontario has its legal counsel reviewing the decision and has already expressed its support and concern directly with the Ministry of the Attorney General, said spokesperson Bill Mitchell.
“At this point, my expectation would be that the Ontario government would appeal the decision and defend the legislation and take all steps necessary to protect public health,” Mitchell said.
Kathryn Boor, professor and chair of Cornell University’s Food Science Department, said the ruling is “absolutely being watched outside of Ontario.”
Earlier this month, health officials warned B.C. residents against drinking unpasteurized milk distributed from raw milk producers in that province. Ontario raw milk advocates say a similar trial over the constitutionality of raw milk laws is expected in British Columbia.
“The entire population of people who drink raw milk, and which seems to be growing, is certainly mindful this case was underway,” said Boor. “The expectation is that a ruling of this nature would have an impact on some arguments made in the U.S. as well.”
As he left court Thursday, Schmidt drank deeply from a glass of raw milk, thanked his supporters and said he was glad to help in their fight for food rights.
“We want to be responsible for our food,” said Schmidt, who mentioned his intent to run for provincial government. “Standing up for basic rights is a moral obligation and that's what we did. I could not have done this alone.”