For Canadian raw-milk farmer Michael Schmidt, a citizen’s fundamental right to choose what he or she eats is a matter of life or death. Literally.
On Sept. 29, he began a hunger strike, which he describes as the continuation of his efforts over the past 17 years to engage the authorities in a “constructive dialogue about the issue of non-pasteurized milk in Ontario and Canada.”
In Canada, it is against the law to sell or distribute raw (unpasteurized) milk or cream, although dairy farmers and their families are allowed to drink raw milk from their own cows.
In an Oct. 19 interview with Food Safety News, Schmidt, 57, who was in the 20th day of his hunger strike, said he “had to admit” that he was struggling with “real energy loss” and has had to stop working.
He has lost more than 30 pounds and is subsisting on only water.
But he made it clear that he’ll “keep going until death” if Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty won’t agree to meet with him in person about raw-milk issues and what he describes as “responsible food freedom.”
“The end of my hunger strike is dependent on it,” he told McGuinty in an Oct. 18 letter, referring to his request for a meeting.
“A political resolution to this must be found,” Schmidt told Food Safety News. “Right now, no one in government is listening.”
In the same letter, he also told McGuinty that in the many years he’s been trying to get some constructive dialog going on raw milk, his farm has had to endure raids by armed officers, his family has been terrorized, and he’s been dragged through the courts — first being acquitted and then being found guilty of providing raw milk to members of his farm’s cow-share program.
Under a cow-share program such as the one at Schmidt’s Glencolton Farms, consumers own shares in the cows and therefore aren’t actually buying milk from the farm.
“It’s not our milk, it’s their milk,” Schmidt said.
Although a court decision last year found Schmidt innocent of the charges of selling and distributing raw milk and raw-milk products, a legal decision last month said a cow share doesn’t give Schmidt a “farm family exemption” from the laws against selling and distributing raw milk.
Schmidt hadn’t yet heard personally from the Ontario premier when he talked with Food Safety News, but he said that McGinty, in an interview on Global TV, a Canadian network, indicated he didn’t want anyone to be hurt in the hunger strike.
A spokesperson in McGuinty’s office confirmed that McGuinty hadn’t yet responded personally to Schmidt’s letter but that the letter is being reviewed.
A media release from the premier’s office ended with this sentence: “In regards to Mr. Schmidt’s hunger strike, we would never want anyone to put their health and/or safety at risk.”
The earlier paragraphs of the release pointed to the potentially harmful health effects of drinking raw milk and said the case against Schmidt has gone through the appropriate appeals process.
A Canadian health official told reporters that Canada’s concern about raw milk is primarily the harmful form of E. coli, which can sicken and kill people who drink raw milk containing it.
With the premier busy preparing to appoint members to his cabinet on Oct. 20, Schmidt said he wasn’t surprised that he hadn’t heard from him yet but hopes it will happen once the new cabinet members are sworn in.
“I think once that happens, the direction will be clearer,” he said.
His hunger strike has attracted attention and support from raw-milk drinkers and food-freedom advocates across the globe. In the United States, Wisconsin raw-milk farmer Vernon Hershberger has joined Schmidt in the hunger strike, embarking on a diet 3 days a week of 2 raw eggs and one glass of raw milk per day.
In a letter on The Bovine blog, which is keeping people informed about the hunger strike, Hershberger, who has tangled with authorities in his state over raw milk, said he has lost 15 pounds so far and that his sons are pitching in to help him with the more strenuous tasks on the farm.
Wisconsin raw-milk advocate and activist Max Kane has also joined the hunger strike. He told Food Safety News that Schmidt asked him to to fast only every other day because he was concerned about his health.
Kane, who attributes drinking raw milk and eating raw foods (including meat and poultry) to “healing his body from Crohn’s disease,” a serious gastrointestinal ailment, said Schmidt’s hunger strike is a way to bring as much as attention as possible to what he perceives is the truth about raw milk.
For Kane, the hunger strike is part of how social norms trickle from country to country when it comes to social change and a person’s right to chose his or her own diet. It’s all about being able to eat healthy foods, he said.
In the U.S., Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, said the foundation will be sending a letter to the 10,000 members on its list urging them to contact Canadian officials and McGuinty specifically, about ending Schmidt’s hunger strike.
According to the BackYard Farming blog, there is also a large group in Toronto whose members are on a rotational fasting “in support and respect to Michael Schmidt and others on this Hunger Strike For Responsible Food Freedom.”
In talking with Food Safety News, Schmidt said one of the issues in this ongoing attempt to get the government to sit down at the table is food safety.
He said the problem is that there’s an underground black market for raw milk that’s unregulated.
“That’s where the real danger is,” he said.
He believes that what’s needed is getting government officials to the table to discuss the issues around raw milk.
“We need to find a proper way to regulate this market so it can come above ground,” he said.
And while government officials trumpet the mantra that raw milk is dangerous because it can contain pathogens that can sicken or kill people, Schmidt said they aren’t looking at the new studies or the new technologies and information about raw milk that have become available since 1938, when Canada passed a law prohibiting the sale of raw milk.
“The cycle has to be broken,” Schmidt said. “They’re not outlawing other products such as fresh fruits and vegetables and meat that have been contaminated with pathogens. But in the case of raw milk, they keep saying ‘Ban raw milk because it can contain E coli or other harmful pathogens.’ “
He fears that with the growing demand for raw milk, the underground black market for it will continue to grow.
“At a certain point, that’s very irresponsible for government to ignore,” he said. “Let’s bring it above ground.”
Pointing out that raw milk is produced and distributed in a local area, Schmidt said it’s easy to follow the trail should milk be contaminated and make people sick. On that same tack, he said that because it’s a farm-direct product, there’s no co-mingling of the milk from one farm with other farms in the area, which is the case with conventional milk going to a processor to be pasteurized.
“I say that is the real food safety in this,” he said, referring to traceability. “A producer has a limited radius.”
January last year, Schmidt
started Cow Share Canada, a national organization that provides information and training for food safety and cow health. Farmers who qualify for the program have to be inspected and do testing on a regular basis, and no cow with a communicable disease can come onto the farm.
Fresno, CA, dairyman Mark McAfee, owner of Organic Pastures, the largest organic raw-milk farm in the United States, agrees with Schmidt that pushing raw milk underground can be dangerous when it comes to food safety. He recently formed the Raw Milk Institute with the goal of providing raw-milk farmers with information and training about food safety.
He told Food Safety News that Schmidt is a friend, one who is revered by the people who know him.
A Renaissance man of sorts, Schmidt has a Masters degree in Agriculture and is a classical musician who conducts symphonies and choral groups, in addition to being a dairy farmer and an entrepreneur.
“He’s very calm in his heart, but there’s Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. blood flowing in his veins,” McAfee said. “He’s been pushed to the limit. Everyone’s worried about him.”
Pointing out that Schmidt has been fighting this issue in the Canadian judicial system for years, McAfee said the hunger strike is an appeal to the administration.
“He’s got to go to the leadership and find a way for raw milk to be available,” he said.
And he agrees with Schmidt that raw milk produced without oversight can be dangerous.
“Or safe,” he said. “If it’s underground, it’s really an unknown.”
Both Schmidt and McAfee say that demand for raw milk is so strong that they can’t even make cheese because so many people want what Schmidt says is “milk the way it comes from the cow.”
In an interview with Sun News, Schmidt emphasized the hunger strike is not about raw milk but rather “the freedom to choose what food we put into our bodies.”
An Oct. 19 request to the Dairy Farmers of Ontario, a branch office of Dairy Farmers of Canada, for comments about Schmidt’s hunger strike and raw milk went unanswered.