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Raw Milk Might Have a Future in Canada, But Questions Remain

Opinion

(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
  • Michael Schmidt is deserving of trust? Only if we can include arms dealers and crack cocaine sellers into that same cadre, because they’re all, bluntly, agents of death. The only difference is the latter two are at least honest about the impacts of their profession.

    I suppose Canada is so used to undermining the health and welfare of its citizens with its tar sands exploitation, so what’s a little push here and there for raw milk, but to reduce the discussion into one of “economic growth” is to completely ignore the fiscal harm that raw milk causes.

    Even a 17 person raw milk outbreak in my state (Missouri) cost over $440,000 of tax payer money to investigate. The length of stay in the hospital and the types of treatment necessary add yet another major financial burden—in medical costs, limitations on available medical resources, and increases in healthcare premiums.

    Then there’s the costs associated with the employees being out of work, the likely costs to the government for various supports for these people—schools having to accommodate sick children that need to receive specialized training to ensure they catch up with their peers.

    Funny how the “food freedom” movement never absorbs the costs of their freedom, themselves. No, instead they demand freedom for themselves, while assuming that the rest of us will pay for it.

    There is no legitimate study supporting the concept that raw milk can be safe, and too many incidents demonstrating otherwise. There is no legitimate study supporting the concept that raw milk is the miracle liquid the gullible defend, but plenty of cases of sick children facing a lifetime of problems because of their parents’ foolishness.

    We have history showing us, time and again, how raw milk harms, and we’ve never once had evidence—evidence, not some overprotective mother’s anecdotal aside—showing us that raw milk is _better_ than pasteurized.

    To reduce all this to some form of “agri-food innovation” is equivalent to saying salmonella is nothing more than a way to encourage new forms of cookware and kitchen safety products.

    • oldcowvet

      They need to mix raw milk with marijuana, then we would have the fountain of youth

  • Aeolus

    Is any producer of meat or vegetables “deserving of trust”, according to this poster’s (Shelley Powers) mindset? Meat and vegetables too can be “agents of death”, as many food recalls demonstrate. We need a more flexible, less biased way of thinking about these things. To my mind, if trust exists via a close connection between food producer (e.g. the Michael Schmidts of this world) and food consumers, that what pursuit of life and happiness is all about.

  • Richard Barrett

    We need and want safety when it comes to raw milk being somehow made available to the public.
    This is why recommend for every farmer that is not having his milk pasteurized that he should be Certified by the Raw Milk Institute and that the public to check out the farm’s test results. Check it out at http://www.rawmilkinstitute.org