Milk given the raw deal?

With the current trends toward organic and raw food diets, some raw food supporters are saying it's time to reopen the debate on unpasteurized milk.
Kelsey Kozak, 16, pours fresh raw milk through a stainless steel strainer and funnel as her mother Linda Kozak looks at their family farm near Seattle, Wash. ((Ted S. Warren/Associated Press))
With the current trends toward organic and raw food diets, some raw food supporters are saying it's time to reopen the debate on unpasteurized milk.

It is illegal to sell raw, or unpasteurized, milk in Canada because of concerns about E. coli and other bacteria. But that didn't stop Ontario farmer Michael Schmidt from setting up a deal where customers could own part of a cow, and thus get raw milk. The prohibition on raw milk does not apply to farmers.

Ontario farmer Michael Schmidt, who set up a cow-sharing program in which customers were provided with raw milk, has been charged with violating the Milk Act. ((Colin Perkel/Canadian Press))
In November 2006, his farm was raided and his equipment was seized, because authorities said he violated the Milk Act and the Ontario Health Protection and Promotion Act. He faced 20 charges related to illegally producing, storing and distributing raw milk.

In October 2008, Schmidt was found guilty of contempt of court for ignoring a court order to stop selling unpasteurized milk. In January 2009, Schmidt returned to court and announced plans to file a charter challenge on the grounds that the police investigation violated his right to liberty.

"The only thing that will stop me is if we — through a constructive dialogue — actually find out that milk might be dangerous," he told reporters. "And I can guarantee it is not."

Schmidt represented himself and on Jan. 21, 2010, a justice of the peace agreed with him. Paul Kowarsky ruled that Schmidt's co-op set-up is exempt from the two pieces of legislation. The ruling means the group of owners of the cows on Schmidt's farm — about 80 kilometres northeast of Toronto — can continue to get their raw milk.

What is it?

Raw milk is milk that hasn't been pasteurized. The taste and digestibility are different, but there's no consensus as to whether it's healthier than processed milk.

What's pasteurization?

Pasteurization is the process of heating a food for the purpose of killing harmful organisms such as bacteria, viruses, protozoa, moulds and yeasts. French scientist Louis Pasteur invented the process in 1862.

What's the problem?

Health authorities say that when milk isn't pasteurized, it can contain potentially lethal disease-causing bacteria.

In August 2006, Health Canada released a statement " to remind Canadians not to drink raw (unpasteurized) milk because it could contain bacteria that can make you seriously ill."

The reminder warned that these bacteria, which include Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria, could lead to very serious health conditions ranging from fever, vomiting and diarrhea to life-threatening kidney failure, miscarriage and death. Children, pregnant women, the elderly and individuals with compromised immune systems were cited as being particularly at risk.

The British Columbia Ministry of Health calls raw milk "a risk to public safety." It says "milk is a highly perishable food product and is an excellent medium for transmitting a variety of diseases." The statement adds that raw milk usually comes from farms that aren't inspected by government agencies.

What's the law?

In Canada, dairy farmers can't sell unpasteurized milk. It's regulated in the Food and Drug act, section B.08.002.02. It states that no person shall sell any dairy product, from a cow or any other animal, unless it has been pasteurized to meet health standards.

It is legal to sell raw milk in many American states and European countries. The pasteurization law doesn't extend to cheese, as Canadian law permits the sale of raw-milk cheese that is aged for at least 60 days.

The debate resurfaced in November 2006 after provincial authorities raided Michael Schmidt's Ontario dairy farm because he had been providing unpasteurized milk to about 150 customers.

Why raw milk?

Supporters of raw milk say the pasteurization process kills most, if not all, micro organisms, including the beneficial ones that aid in digestion and metabolization. They also promote good health by crowding out bad bacteria and help prevent yeast overgrowth in the intestinal tract.

The Campaign for real milk says that raw milk comes from cows that are properly fed. Cows that eat green grass provide milk with nutrients like vitamins A and D. They argue that pasteurization enables the milk industry to raise cows in less-expensive, less-healthy conditions.

They also say that pasteurization destroys enzymes and diminishes vitamin content. Pasteurization, says the group, is associated with allergies, increased tooth decay, colic in infants, growth problems, osteoporosis, arthritis, heart disease and cancer. Many calves fed pasteurized milk die before maturity.

Raw milk will sour naturally due to the bacterial production of lactic acid and still be healthy, while pasteurized milk, which lacks the essential bacteria, will putrefy.