Raw milk: ‘media coverage far beyond its importance’

Here’s the most important point in a column written by long-time Toronto Globe and Mail medical reporter Andre Picard:

The trial of Ontario raw milk farmer Michael Schmidt has garnered media coverage far beyond its importance.

Oh, and the outcome is largely irrelevant.

It seems somewhat absurd to jail a man for selling a product that clients desperately want and which, on the surface at least, seems harmless. But, hey, it happens to pot dealers every day.

What is not harmless is Mr. Schmidt’s attack on pasteurization and on food-safety regulations more generally.

Under the guise of civil liberties and freedom, he and his supporters have uttered all kinds of nonsense and portrayed themselves as martyrs for pure food. …

Farmer Schmidt and his acolytes can suckle the milk from the teat of a cow, a goat, a cat, or any other lactating mammal to their hearts’ content.

Their rights and freedoms are in no way compromised.

What the law restricts is the commercial sale of raw milk.

Mr. Schmidt tried to circumvent this fact by selling "cow shares" and arguing that his clients were actually proprietors and free to consume raw milk from their own cows.

Whether that little manoeuvre exempts him from the law is up to the courts to decide. But it seems unlikely. After all, bar owners tried this technique to sidestep anti-smoking laws, selling "shares" in their establishment and arguing that patrons were smoking in a private club. Judges saw through the subterfuge. …

Another argument is that meat – which can also contain pathogens – is sold raw, so why not milk? The practical reason for this is obvious. It is easy and efficient to pasteurize milk; it is not practical to cook meat before selling it, but its refrigeration (designed to minimize the growth of bacteria) is mandatory and regulated.

Raw milk crusader Michael Schmidt: A thoroughly modern Marie Antoinette

Amy and I went to Versailles last summer while touring around France, and I’ve seen that Marie Antoinette movie so I consider myself well-versed in the French aristocracy of the late 18th century.

Toronto Globe and Mail columnist John Doyle explored the same themes this morning in a review of a documentary about Ontario raw milk crusader Michael Schmidt which is being broadcast tonight on Wallyworld – sorry, Newsworld, Canada’s cable news program.

It’s a fascinating documentary with many passionate declarations on whether farmers should be allowed to sell raw milk and the public should be allowed to consume it. It’s rich in irony.

It’s also an enraging program, largely because the real issue is the existence of the urban bourgeoisie’s delusion of invincibility, ignorance about science and tendency to posture in order to justify selfishness.

Schmidt himself is a fascinating character, self-mythologizing relentlessly and shrewdly. He’s always in a hat or cap and presents himself as an artist. No doubt his little farm is clean and well-run, but when Schmidt and his cabal of celebrity-chef supporters appear together and prattle on about taste and claim to be against "big business," they’re just nitwits. …

The vulnerability of children is a key issue. Sure, adults are entitled to choice – but allowed the choice of giving unpasteurized milk to children, who have no choice? Call me peculiar, but the safety of children has nothing to do with the "nanny state" interfering in some alleged gourmand’s taste for dangerous foods. One reason the nanny state exists is to protect the young, the elderly and the vulnerable. …

Watching Schmidt and his supporters, I was reminded of the one of the phenomena of the Romantic period in Europe – all those pastoral elegies of the 1700s, in which the poet idealizes rustic life, especially the shepherd, for the enjoyment of aristocrats.

That phenomenon peaked, I suppose, in France, in the late 18th century, when it was a fad at the French court to play at being part of the pastoral world. Marie Antoinette liked nothing better than to pretend she was a shepherdess (that’s her Versailles farmhouse, right and below). It was an indulgent fantasy, very far removed from the reality of rustic life. Then came the Revolution. And little wonder. The raw-milk issue is about today’s Marie Antoinettes.

Do Michael Schmidt’s cows ‘produce wonderful abstract-expressionist paintings in their off hours’

The Owen Sound Sun Times has had enough of raw milk evangelist Michael Schmidt.

The Ontario paper  correctly observes that the Ontario government does not have the capacity to ensure that unpasteurized milk is safe to distribute and Michael Schmidt does not have the right to pick and choose which laws he wishes to obey.

Schmidt’s raw-milk operation may be the most sparkling-clean in all of Ontario. His methods of storage and transport may be beyond reproach. His milk cows may be grass-fed, free-range, pest-free and of above average intelligence. For all we know they may produce wonderful abstract-expressionist paintings in their off hours.

That does not change the fact that drinking raw milk brings with it a heightened risk of salmonella, E. coli and Listeriosis. Nor does it change the fact that pasteurization saves lives.

Anyone who doesn’t believe this should ask someone old enough to remember the days before pasteurization was introduced.

If selling raw milk were legal, it would in short order become a big business. The Ontario government, knowing the statistical risks of raw-milk distribution, would be legally and morally responsible for ensuring that no one got sick as a result.

That is a chance no responsible, reasonable government can or will take.

Therefore, Schmidt’s crusade will fail. It should fail.

One man, however impassioned, cannot set health policy for all Ontarians, in the face of medical evidence that doing so would put people at risk.

Ontario Farmer Michael Schmidt found guilty of contempt of court in raw milk case

An organic farmer accused of ignoring a court order to stop selling unpasteurized milk was found guilty of contempt of court Monday morning in Newmarket, Ont.

Michael Schmidt has run a co-operative organic dairy farm near Owen Sound, Ont., for more than 20 years.

Contempt charges were sought by York Region officials, who fear there are health risks for people consuming the raw milk, including the risk of spreading salmonella, E. coli and listeria.

Schmidt also still faces 20 charges laid by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Grey-Bruce Health Unit. That trial is expected to begin in early 2009.

A table of raw dairy outbreaks is available at http://www.foodsafety.ksu.edu/articles/384/RawMilkOutbreakTable.pdf

and an updated one here.