Canadian raw-milk dairy farmer Michael Schmidt has called off his 5-week hunger strike, after having had the chance on Nov. 4 to meet with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.
In an earlier interview with Food Safety News, Schmidt had vowed to “go until death” if the premier didn’t agree to meet with him in person to discuss raw-milk issues and what he describes as “responsible food freedom.”
Raw milk is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized to kill harmful pathogens that might be in the milk. Under Canadian law, it is illegal to sell raw milk, although it is not illegal to drink it.
During his hunger strike, Schmidt, who subsisted only on water mixed with lemon juice, lost 50 pounds.
Although the meeting with the premier was a brief one — coming about when McGuinty walked in on a meeting that Schmidt was having with the premier’s chief of staff — Schmidt told Food Safety News that he did, indeed, achieve the goal of his protest.
“The premier came down, we exchanged our positions, we got direction, and parted with a better understanding of where we are coming from,” he said.
In his note of appreciation to his supporters on The Bovine blog, Schmidt said that the “moment of meeting McGuinty was crucial and more significant that he, himself, in fact, imagines.”
He also described the premier’s admission that he’s no expert and has to rely on experts to make decisions as a good beginning.
“That, itself, has given us the opportunity to question the choice of experts,” he said, adding that such a choice “should be expanded to include those who have, in fact, the experience of how to produce raw milk for human consumption.”
“We will review our next steps,” he wrote to his supporters. “It was a small step towards proper food rights and freedom of choice. It was a huge step for McGuinty to, in fact, listen and show compassion.”
All through his hunger strike, Schmidt has said it wasn’t just about raw milk but also about a person’s fundamental right to choose what he or she eats or drinks.
He told a reporter from The Canadian Press that when McGuinty had come into the meeting, he had asked Schmidt what it would take to get him eating again. Schmidt had replied by telling the premier that he had done it already because he had come down to meet with him.
Although a spokesperson for McGuinty told The Canadian Press that the meeting went well, the premier said that the government has no plans to change its position to allow the sale of raw milk.
But McGuinty did suggest that Schmidt talk with the 53 Liberals who were elected Oct. 6 and also advised him to concentrate his efforts on lobbying the MPPs (members of Provincial Parliament) to see if he could get enough support from them for overturning the ban on raw-milk sales.
Schmidt, 57, began his hunger strike on Sept. 29. At the time, he expressed his frustration with getting nowhere in his efforts over the past 17 years to engage authorities in a “constructive dialogue about the issue of non-pasteurized milk in Ontario and Canada.”
His decision to embark on a hunger strike followed on the heels of a legal decision that found him guilty on 15 of 19 charges related to selling and distributing unpasteurized milk. That had been a crushing blow to him, because in an earlier legal decision, he had been acquitted of all charges.
Schmidt had argued that he qualified for a “family farm” exemption from laws against selling and distributing raw milk because under a cow-share program, such as the one at Schmidt’s Glencolton Farms in Ontario, the milk belongs to the members of the cooperative, not to him. For that reason, he wasn’t selling the milk to them.
“It’s not our milk, it’s their milk,” he said.
But the court ruled in September that his cow-share program did not qualify for the family farm exemption.
While raw-milk supporters say that unpasteurized milk has health benefits that range from preventing asthma to curing diabetes, many health officials say there is no scientific evidence of that and that it can be contaminated with pathogens that can sicken or kill people. Of particular concern are children, because children are among those who are the most vulnerable to harmful strains of E. coli, Salmonella, and other pathogens.
In an earlier interview with Food Safety News, Schmidt said that food safety was one of the reasons he wants to get the government to agree to legalizing the sale of raw milk.
As it is now, he said, demand for raw milk is so strong — and continues to grow — that an underground, black market for it has developed. The problem with that, he said, is that some of the “underground” raw milk might not be produced following strict hygiene and other food-safety standards.
“That’s where the real danger is,” he told Food Safety News in an earlier interview. “Let’s bring it above ground where it can be regulated.”
Looking to the future, Schmidt said he wants to develop a strategy to lobby all the members of Parliament to understand the issue of the production of safe raw milk “like in any other G8 country.”
He also plans to develop “Cow Share Canada” as an umbrella organization for the training, accreditation and inspection of dairy farms for certified cow-share operations. He wants to conduct further research on the issue of raw-milk benefits and safety.
When asked about his future plans for his dairy farm, he said he will develop it “more and more into an education and research center.”