Case more to do with rights than sales, raw milk crusader tells court

A Southern Ontario farmer began his defence against charges of illegally selling unpasteurized milk, telling a court Monday his rights were being ignored.

A Southern Ontario farmer began his defence against charges of illegally selling unpasteurized milk, telling a court Monday his rights were being ignored.

Michael Schmidt talks to reporters in July outside court in Newmarket, Ont. ((Colin Perkel/Canadian Press))
Michael Schmidt is conducting his own defence during the trial in Newmarket on about 20 charges stemming from an armed raid of his farm in November 2006.

In his opening statement, Schmidt said the core issue was not milk but the "respect to [which] the individual's freedom has been lost or wilfully ignored."

During a court recess, he proceeded to take a large swig of unpasteurized milk from a mason jar.

Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, spectators gathered to hear details of the raid. The Crown said it will reveal evidence from the undercover investigation.

Last fall, Schmidt was found guilty of contempt of court for ignoring an order to stop selling the milk. He was fined $5,000, in addition to $50,000 in court costs. Schmidt also defended himself during that trial.

"The government is trying to regulate every aspect of our lives, and I think people are waking up to that and saying 'no, it stops here,'" Schmidt told the Canadian Press.

"When it comes to our own body and what we put in our body as food, the government should respect what people want to do."

The sale of raw milk is banned in Canada because it can make people ill from bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria, Health Canada says.

'Cow-sharing' program

The federal health agency warns that children, pregnant women, the elderly and individuals with compromised immune systems are particularly at risk, and says any perceived health benefits are outweighed by the dangers.

But proponents of raw milk argue it tastes better and contains beneficial bacteria and enzymes that are killed during pasteurization, a process of heating milk to kill harmful micro-organisms.

Schmidt has also argued that his farm is legal because it operates as a "cow-sharing" program, with customers paying for the care of their animals and distribution of milk rather than the product itself.

He has run the co-operative Glencolton Farms in Durham, Ont., about 90 kilometres northwest of Toronto, for the past 20 years.

He said Canada is the only G7 country to ban the sale of  raw milk for safety reasons. It is also legal in nearly half of the United States.

The Ontario farmer's case has garnered widespread attention, including a feature article about his stand in the American general interest magazine Harper's about him, as well as documentaries detailing his crusade.

With files from the Canadian Press