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Raw Milk Farmers Are Going to Prison

farmers jail time selling raw milk

Story at-a-glance -

  • In Canada, it’s illegal to sell or give away raw milk, a law that’s enforced in many provinces
  • In Ontario, distributing raw milk was long considered to be a regulatory offense punishable by fines, but as of January 2018 an order issued by Ontario’s Superior Court calls for anyone who distributes or sells raw milk in the area to face years in prison
  • Members of one area food co-op believe the Ontario injunction violates their constitutional right to access raw milk, and they’ve filed a motion to have the injunction stayed
  • In the meantime, the co-op has been forced to stop distributing the milk in order to avoid criminal charges, feeding it to pigs and chickens instead of handing it out to co-op members

By Dr. Mercola

In Canada, it’s illegal to sell or give away raw milk, a law that’s enforced in many provinces. In Ontario, distributing raw milk was long considered to be a regulatory offense punishable by fines, but as of January 2018 an order issued by Ontario’s Superior Court changed that. Now, anyone who distributes or sells raw milk in the area can face years in prison.

As Karen Selick, litigation director for the Canadian Constitution Foundation, wrote in the Financial Post, “[T]he province of Ontario appears eager to fill its empty jail cells with individuals whose so-called crime was distributing raw milk.”1 The injunction was part of Downing v. ARC, a legal case between Gavin Downing, Ontario’s milk director, and ARC, a farm co-op owned by Canadian raw milk farmer Michael Schmidt that was distributing raw milk to its members.

According to A Campaign for Real Milk, a project of the Weston A. Price Foundation, “In Ontario, farmers may be fined $250,000 and sentenced to three years in jail [for selling or distributing raw milk] … Challenges to these laws are now underway. And in spite of onerous penalties, Michael and Dorothea Schmidt of Glencolton Farms provide milk to cow shareholders in Toronto.”2

Canadian Government Battles Raw Milk Farmers Providing Wholesome Food

Schmidt has been battling with the Canadian government for decades in order to provide safe raw milk to area residents. He has been harassed with threats, surveillance, intimidation and raids, even though no one has ever gotten sick from drinking the raw milk products he provides. Since it is illegal to sell raw milk in Canada, those who wanted to enjoy Schmidt’s raw milk products formed the Glencolton farm-share, in which each owned a piece of a cow and could therefore legally enjoy its milk.

The government eradicated this loophole, however, so the shareholders moved to own the farm instead of just the cow, by transforming into the ARC co-op. The government still intervened, however, forcing the members to “operate with caution” out of fear that they might be raided while trying to pick up a gallon of milk. Although members have tried to set up meetings with government officials to outline their concerns and reach an agreeable conclusion, the government has not been interested.3

In 2011, Schmidt even went on a 37-day hunger strike, which ended with him meeting former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, although no progress was ultimately made. Selick, who was Schmidt’s lawyer from 2010 to 2013, explained that the injunction handed down in 2018 is being appealed and a constitutional challenge has been launched seeking to overrule the “outdated” legislation, adding:4

“[O]ver the 24 years that Ontario has been prosecuting Schmidt, the number of U.S. states that have enacted laws allowing consumers to access raw milk has risen from 26 to 42. Canada is the only G-7 country that completely prohibits the distribution and sale of raw milk, through both federal and provincial laws. In many European countries, raw milk is sold in vending machines. Italy alone has about 1,300 such machines.

Do all these foreign governments care less about their people than Canadian governments do? Or do they simply recognize that raw milk really isn’t very risky compared to all kinds of stuff that people consume legally every day? Canadian kids make an alarming number of trips to the hospital emergency room every year (and occasionally die) due to choking on hard candies or balloons, but we don’t outlaw those.”

Violating the Constitutional Right to Access Raw Milk

Elisa Vander Hout, who is married to Schmidt, believes the Ontario injunction violates their constitutional right to access raw milk and has, along with other co-op members, filed a motion to have the injunction stayed.

For now, they have stopped distributing the milk in order to avoid criminal charges, feeding the wholesome food to pigs and chickens instead of handing it out to co-op members.5 It’s a similar story in the U.S., where efforts continue to expand access to raw milk — the only food banned from interstate commerce — and, in so doing, protect people’s right to eat and drink what they please.

You might remember that at one time all milk was “raw,” as pasteurization did not yet exist. This 19th-century invention is touted as crucial in making milk safe, but what it’s actually done is allow for the proliferation of the “dirty dairy” industry, aka milk that comes from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOS). The Tenth Amendment Center is one of the latest NGOs to get involved in the raw milk legalization cause. The 10th Amendment reads:6

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

What this means, then, is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in violation of the Constitution by trying to enforce raw milk bans within states. Such bans tend to favor industrial dairy at the expense of small, family farms, according to Mike Maharrey, national communications director for the Tenth Amendment Center. He said in a position paper:7

“Constitutionally, food safety falls within the powers reserved to the states and the people … The feds have no authority to enforce food safety laws within the border of a state. Nevertheless, federal agencies still want more control over America’s food supply, and they go great lengths to get it.

For example, the FDA bans the interstate sale of raw milk. But, not only do they ban the transportation of raw milk across state lines, they also claim the authority to ban unpasteurized milk within the borders of a state.

FDA ultimately wants to maintain a complete prohibition on raw milk with a one-size-fits-all control over everything you eat and drink. While FDA apologists claim the agency only wants to protect consumers, in truth, federal regulations tend to benefit big companies and squeeze out family farms. In the name of safety, FDA regulations limit your ability to access local, fresh food.”

Keeping Raw Milk Illegal Allows Dirty CAFOs to Flourish

On CAFOs, milk can be produced in filthy conditions, then heated until all the pathogens are gone. Never mind that, along with killing “germs,” pasteurization kills off beneficial organisms in the milk and prevents natural souring (while naturally soured milk can still be consumed, pasteurized milk past its prime will quickly go bad).8

Rather than forcing dirty and dangerous CAFOs to clean up their acts, the FDA has waged a war against raw milk producers — those who are typically producing milk using far healthier, more humane and more sustainable methods than the industrial dairy industry ever could.

As CAFOs became the norm for dairy farms (even in idyllic-seeming dairy states like Vermont), farmers were forced to grow their herds and increase milk production using artificial (drug- and hormone-based) methods, among others (like feeding cows an unnatural amount of grain-based food, 24-hour confinement and increased number of milkings per day).

The price of milk has gone so low that an average-sized dairy farm in Vermont (about 125 cows) may operate at a loss of $100,000 a year.9 According to the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), meanwhile:10

“Dairy farmers are suffering because the companies that send their milk to the grocery store refuse to pay them what it costs them to produce the milk. On the West Coast, cooperatives created to sell dairy products have been accused by their members of pocketing millions of dollars in an elaborate accounting scheme.

Meanwhile, farmers in the Northeast have filed a lawsuit against their co-op, Dairy Farmers of America, and Dean Foods, the nation’s largest milk processor, alleging the companies conspired to monopolize the market and drive down prices, knowing their member farmers would have nowhere else to sell their milk.

Milk prices are so bad this year — farmers are getting the same price they got 20 years ago — that at least one milk processor sent farmers phone numbers for suicide prevention hotlines and other mental health services along with the latest market forecasts.”

Only about 3 percent of Americans regularly consume raw milk, but OCA states this could offer a major push to rural economies. In fact, if 100 farms in Wisconsin could provide raw milk to 50 local families, it would lead to more than $10 million in “increased wealth and well-being” for Wisconsin residents.11

OCA further noted, “A boost like that is exactly what rural economies need as U.S. dairy farmers continue going out of business at an unsustainable rate. In 1950, there were about 3.5 million farms with milking cows. By 2016, there were only 41,809. Between 2015 and 2016, 1725 dairy farms went under.”12

Meanwhile, 48 Million Americans Sickened by CAFO Meat

The irony of federal agents conducting raids on small raw milk farmers becomes all the more apparent when you learn that, each year, 48 million Americans, or nearly 15 percent of the population, are sickened by foodborne illness in the U.S., compared to 1.5 percent of the U.K. population.13 Meanwhile, 128,000 Americans are hospitalized, and 3,000 die, from foodborne disease.

A joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and The Guardian further noted “shocking” and “deeply worrying” hygiene failings at 47 U.S. meat plants that could flood the market with “dirty meat.” Data stemming from 13 red meat and poultry plants over a two-year period revealed more than 150 violations a week, totaling 15,000 violations in all. Incidents included:14

  • Condemned, diseased poultry stored in containers used for edible food products
  • Floor drains blocked by meat and debris, leading to floods of dirty water
  • Meat intended for the human food chain that was contaminated with fecal matter and pus
  • Chicken contaminated with feces or dropped on the floor, rinsed with a chlorine solution and put back into production
  • Pig carcasses contaminated with grease, blood and dirt due to falling on the floor

There were likely far more violations that went undetected as well. When The Guardian interviewed meat hygiene inspectors, they agreed that violations could inevitably slip through the cracks due to the fast line speeds.

The findings are worrying, to put it mildly, as professor Erik Millstone, a food safety expert at Sussex University, told The Guardian, “ … because of the risks of spreading infectious pathogens from carcass to carcass, and between portions of meat. The rates at which outbreaks of infectious food poisoning occur in the U.S. are significantly higher than in the U.K., or the EU, and poor hygiene in the meat supply chain is [a] leading cause of food poisoning in the U.S..”15

Raw Milk Targeted While Contaminated CAFO Meat Is Subsidized

At Pilgrim’s Pride, a poultry giant that processes 34 million chickens a week, noncompliance reports detail an average of nearly 1,500 regulatory violations a month at 24 plants, spanning a 25-month period, The Guardian investigation revealed:16

“An inspector discovered ‘carcasses of poultry showing evidence of septicemic disease ... carcasses showing evidence of having died from other causes than slaughter ... guts of carcasses, [and] poultry carcasses with heads attached.’ He requested that the condemned items be removed. A similar incident was recorded some days later.”

Poultry CAFOS are among the worst offenders when it comes to foodborne illness (although pork and red meat CAFOs also revealed numerous violations). Case in point, in April 2017, the CDC released a preliminary report stating that 8,547 cases of the more than 24,000 foodborne infections reported in 2016 were caused by campylobacter (compared to 8,172 caused by salmonella).17

It’s likely not a coincidence that these two bugs are then singled out as major drivers of outbreaks related to unpasteurized dairy. The CDC report noted, “ … [O]utbreak-related illnesses will increase steadily as unpasteurized dairy consumption grows, likely driven largely by salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis.”18 It seems strange to peg campylobacter as a “raw milk germ,” when it’s regularly detected on CAFO chicken sold in U.S. supermarkets.

According to the CDC, “Campylobacter was found on 47 percent of raw chicken samples bought in grocery stores and tested through the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS).”19 The CDC also states:20

“Most cases of campylobacteriosis are associated with eating raw or undercooked poultry meat or from cross-contamination of other foods by these items … Even one drop of juice from raw chicken meat can have enough campylobacter in it to infect a person! One way to become infected is to cut poultry meat on a cutting board, and then use the unwashed cutting board or utensil to prepare vegetables or other raw or lightly cooked foods.”

Also revealing, while campylobacter is the bacteria responsible for most cases of foodborne illness, leafy greens are actually the No. 1 source of food poisoning in the U.S, accounting for nearly half of all illnesses.21 Why, then, is raw dairy considered worthy of banning while the CAFO model is subsidized?

Tips for Finding High-Quality Raw Milk

Raw dairy farmers have been put out of business for mere suspicion of contamination. Even in the absence of a complaint of contamination, farmers and consumers are often harassed over the buying and selling of raw milk. In contrast, Blue Bell Creamery — the third-largest ice cream maker in the U.S. whose ice cream sickened 10 people with listeria, three of whom died as a result, in 2015, was fined just $175,000 for the incident.22

Ultimately, the choice of what to eat should belong to the individual consumer, not the state or federal government. If the FDA and other government agencies are allowed to impose their view of "safe food" on consumers, raw milk won't be the only thing lost — one day virtually all food could be pasteurized, irradiated and/or genetically engineered.

And remember that quality matters. No matter what food you’re in search of, choosing food that comes from small regenerative farms — not CAFOs — is crucial. If you’re interested in raw milk, here are tips for finding high-quality raw milk sources:

Does the farmer and his entire family drink the milk themselves?

Does the farmer test his milk for pathogens, and can he prove that his product has a low pathogenic population?

Are the cows fed with natural grass on a pasture? If not, what are they feeding the cows?

How long has the farmer been in business producing raw milk?

What conditions are the cows raised in? Do they look healthy?

Is the farm accredited with sanitation standards? In a related note, does the farm have a history of sanitation problems?

Is the milk quickly chilled after collecting?

Are cows given antibiotics and growth hormones? (Remember, organic standards do not allow this practice.)