(The following opinion piece by Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, associate dean of the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, was published May 15, 2014, in the Montreal Gazette and is reposted here with his permission.)
Science-based evidence in food safety seriously compromises any argument for allowing raw milk to be freely sold to Canadians. Even a small amount of raw milk can seriously harm a child, a pregnant woman, the elderly, individuals with a compromised immune system, or anyone for that matter; just one glass will do it.
Still, it appears that support to legalize its distribution is growing in North America. In fact, Louisiana is considering loosening its laws to permit raw milk to be legally sold to consumers. In Canada, raw milk crusader Michael Schmidt, despite a recent legal setback, seems to be making some inroads, and an increasing number of people support his cause.
Some have turned this debate into one about the freedom of choice, while proponents of the status quo in Canada perceive this to be a public-health matter.
It is much more complicated than that, however.
Since 1991, regulations require that milk be pasteurized in order to be sold in Canada. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency clearly states that raw milk can harbor dangerous microorganisms that can pose serious health risks, but such a claim is vigorously disputed by raw-milk advocates. They believe our current law breaches consumers’ rights to choose, and they say that freedom always comes with certain risks, even in food. Some studies suggest that pasteurization takes away some of milk’s nutritional benefits, which would support the view of pro-raw milk groups.
That said, the findings of many other studies are inconclusive; thus, to draw any definitive conclusions would be premature. We do know more than we did in 1991, but much remains to be discovered by food scientists.
When it comes to raw milk, risk perceptions vary greatly between countries. In Europe, for example, consumers can buy raw milk from public vending machines, while many American states already allow for raw milk to be sold by retailers. This stands in contrast to Canada.
Dairy farmers, arguably Canadian agriculture’s most powerful lobby group, perceive any change to the current legislative regime as an economic threat. Even if raw milk probably would appeal only to a marginal number of consumers, dairy farmers still consider this a potential menace, however small.
Facing the influential dairy sector are small-farm operators like Michael Schmidt, who want some attention as well and are emphasizing the virtues of local, straight-to-consumer milk distribution. They, too, warrant the trust of consumers.
As a result, a battle to gain the trust of consumers is emerging.
Raw milk may very well represent an opportunity for Canadian agriculture to recognize the diverse nature of markets. Many modern consumers are looking for original, natural foods, and potential new benefits. As such, economic growth and innovation in agri-food can occur only by embracing the power of differentiation. Raw milk may not provide such an opportunity, but it could, with the proper use of technologies and cautionary policies.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Given our regulatory regime in dairy, getting a bill to legalize raw milk through Parliament will continue to be an uphill battle.© Food Safety News