The Savvy Shopper – Not Milk

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.

Anyone who knows Schmidt or has seem the footage of the raids on his farm is probably assured that his standards in terms of sanitation, feed, and health of his animals is extremely high. In the same way that we’re happy to spend more money on free-range meat or artisanal products, we would feel safe and assured buying milk, even raw milk, from a farmer who so obviously cares about his animals. But not all farmers run their farms the way Schmidt does. Factory-style dairies that take part in the quota system use cheaper feed, often give their cows anti-biotics to prevent disease, and generally do not keep to the same standards that Schmidt has set for himself.

I think Schmidt and other small-scale dairy farmers should be able to sell their product – either at the farm gate or through farmers markets, or to chefs who keep to the same principle regarding artisanal food. But it shouldn’t be widely available to the public, because it’s a product that requires specific knowledge and care to consume it safely.

The irony is that while Schmidt and other small-scale dairy farmers spar with the DFO, it is only because of organizations like the Dairy Farmers of Ontario that Schmidt’s operation exists at all, whether he’s a card-carrying member or not.

The human body does not require milk, and it’s only through the effort and heaps of cash from the DFO that people believe they need milk in the first place.

Look at the facts – humans are the only species that continue to consume milk after they have been weaned. We are also the only species that consumes the milk of another species. (Think for a moment about consuming human milk or that of a gorilla, and see if it doesn’t give you the willies. So why is milk from a cow okay?) Yes, cow’s milk can be made into many tasty and useful products, from butter and cheese to ice cream. But our bodies don’t need any of that, and in fact, despite the popular tagline, milk doesn’t really do a body good (the possible exception being pro-biotic cultures from yogurt, but these are available in capsule form as well – and regular readers will be aware of my thoughts on pro-biotic yogurt).

Organizations like DFO spend huge amounts of money on ad campaigns, and promotional material (ie. the annual milk calendar) to remind and convince consumers that they can’t live without milk. No doubt similar amounts of money are spent lobbying government organizations at all levels to keep milk as an option in schools, in stores and showing up on our national food guide.

One of Schmidt’s claims, oft-repeated by fans of raw milk, is that it is healthier than its pasteurized counterpart, even medicinal in nature, with claims that it lowers risk of osteoporosis, cancer, kidney stones and dental cavities. But this information is at odds with the information coming out of major medical journals that all milk is unhealthy and is, in fact, linked to many of the diseases raw milk proponents claim that it cures or prevents.

I am happy for Schmidt, that the courts have decided that he has the right to run his business on a fair model that works for him and his (informed) shareholders. I am happy that freedom of choice occasionally wins out. But I”m not happy that we’re still being brainwashed into believing that milk is a health-giving food that humans require to survive. Whether Schmidt takes part in the DFO system or not, he still benefits from their efforts when it comes to creating a market for a product that nobody really needs.