Southern Ontario’s food community was shocked earlier this week when news came down that dairy farmer Michael Schmidt was acquitted of all 19 charges against him with regards to the production and sale of raw milk. Because of laws created in the early 20th century, it is illegal to sell or give away raw milk in Canada. Milk pasteurization laws were created to protect the health of citizens consuming a product that, left untreated, could contain e.coli, salmonella and other deadly organisms.
It is still illegal to sell or give away raw milk, although it is not illegal to consume the stuff – Schmidt won because the case was really about the constitutionality of his business model, which is to sell shares in a cow (and their output) to private individuals. As “owners” of the cow, they can legally consume the milk from it. Schmidt’s fight was also against Ontario’s quota system, used in the dairy and poultry industries, which strongly favour large-scale farmers. The Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO) run the quota system, which can cost farmers as much as $20,000 per cow, and all milk in the system is pooled and pasteurized, and sold through the DFO. Small scale farmers like Schmidt generally cannot afford to pay quota to the DFO, and besides the issues of right to choose and health and safety of the product, Schmidt likely makes more money selling shares of his product than he would by being involved in the DFO’s corporate system.
As would be expected, the DFO is not happy about Schmidt’s recent win, claiming that his system puts public health at risk.
One of Schmidt’s points in his defence (he represented himself in court) was that consumers should have freedom of choice. Food activists will continue to press this point as they begin to put pressure on the government to make raw milk publicly accessible and more widely available for sale. Personally, I think this is a bad idea. While I believe in the right to choose the food you eat, we need to remember that raw milk is a special product that requires considerable care both in how it is created and how it is stored by the consumer.