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Raw milk: a right or a risk?

Kurtis Staven with some of his "critters"; Photo, Mona Mattei

A legal precedent decided in Ontario yesterday, Jan. 20, sets the stage for battle in B.C. between the health authorities and raw milk advocates. In Ontario, Michael Schmidt of Glencolton Farms, was acquitted of 19 charges of distributing unpasteurized milk. Meanwhile, in B.C., an illness reported in early January to the Fraser Health Authority has brought a cow-share, Home on the Range, in the Fraser Valley under scrutiny. They are now facing an injunction against them for distributing raw milk. While drinking unpasteurized or raw milk is legal for owners of cows, the sale and distribution of the milk is illegal across Canada. About 5,000 cow-share owners across Canada, including one in Christina Lake, and the Canadian Raw Milk Alliance say it is time for the regulations to change.

Under Canadian law you cannot buy, sell or give away raw milk. In order to legally drink unpasteurized milk, you must be the owner of the cow, so herd-sharing has become a way for people who choose raw milk to get the product they want. A herd-share (or cow-share) is a group of people who get together to buy an animal. They then find a farm to board the animals, maintain them, and take care of them. “It’s much like a horse boarding situation, except you’re not milking horses!” said Kurtis Staven, of Wild Thing Organics.

Local cow-share managers, Kurtis and Karen Staven of Wild Thing Organics in Christina Lake have operated their cow-share program for the past two years and currently have six cows. Once a co-owner purchases a share of a cow they pay for the maintenance of the animal they own and receive a share of the milk the cow produces. Wild Thing ships to owners that live as far away as Manitoba. Many of their clients are health care practitioners and people who are not able to tolerate pasteurized milk.

“People come to us, ask some questions, find out how we operate. People are really aware of what’s going on and they’ve done their homework. They ask us if the cows are grass-fed, if we have any pesticides or chemicals on the property, - they have a big list of questions. And they come to visit,” said Karen.

While they have not been questioned by any health authorities to date, “we know they are aware of us, they have copies of our contract, and they had it roughly within two months of when we started up,” said Kurtis.

Provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, said in a provincial statement that the “pasteurization of raw milk has prevented thousands of illnesses and deaths. It is one of the great advances in public health of the 20th century. It removes potentially harmful bacteria, while in no way compromising milk’s nutritional qualities.” Kendall’s statement went on to say that “this (the illness in January) should serve as another strong warning that drinking unpasteurized milk can result in illness, long-lasting serious diseases, or even death. Disease-causing bacteria found in unpasteurized milk include E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter.”

The tests conducted on the Home on the Range products indicated high levels of bacteria according to the BCCDC. Home on the Range shareholders are saying that the tests initially showed acceptable levels of bacteria, in keeping with standards for pasteurized milk, but later tests, allegedly completed days after the products were confiscated, show excessively high levels. The shareholders are questioning why the test results were so different.

Kendall also maintains that there is no research to substantiate the claims that raw milk has better nutritional and medicinal qualities than pasteurized milk. As recent outbreaks demonstrate, he said, even raw milk with a normal appearance from apparently healthy cows can contain bacteria with the potential to cause human illness.

“Even though the consumption of raw milk in B.C. is limited, there have been several outbreaks caused by this practice. Sadly, some of these illnesses occurred in children who were given raw milk by well-intentioned parents. All parents should realize that children are among those at highest risk, as they tend to consume more milk,” said Kendall.

What seems to be missing in the information available about raw milk is evidence from other countries, including the United States, where raw milk is distributed in commercial markets. In over 20 American states, much of Europe and many other places in the world, raw milk is sold in local stores. A document available at the BCCDC, “Guidelines for the Application of a Hazard Analysis Critical Point Program in a Dairy Plant,” includes statistics on random food testing done in the province. This information indicates that there have been 22 deaths from pasteurized milk since 1982. At the time of press, the BCCDC was not able to comment.

In other countries, dairies producing raw milk are subject to standards and testing like any other dairy products. Kurtis says that while the Canadian cow-shares are interested in seeing standards and testing implemented for their products, but most are not interested in mass distribution.

“The bulk of the shareholders don’t want to enter into the commercial system. They don’t want to see the large volume dairy because they can’t control exactly how the animals are managed and the feeding protocol. So you’ll find they like the thought of the small operation and owning the animals – absolute control of all the elements and all the steps. In addition, the smart cow-share out there, would like regular testing,” said Kurtis Staven.

Staven says the problems in dairy products are the result of historical changes in the way dairy is produced. In the early part of the 1900’s the methods of dairy farming changed radically from the free-range type of production seen prior. The new methods had cows confined, fed grains instead of grass, and developed an overall cheaper production method, explained Kurtis. “Unfortunately, when you confine animals in a small area you end up with management issues. You end up with manure issues. When you add heavy grains to their diet you end up with high ph levels and thus creating an environment in the animals and the milk which allows e-coli and listeria to propogate.”

The pasteurization process can remove most of the bacteria but can also destroy enzymes and vitamin content in milk. “The sign of successful pasteurization is no enzyme content in the milk,” Karen explained, “and it destroys almost all vitamin content. So what you’re left with is basically not much. They also homogenize the milk which forces the fat particles into suspension inside the proteins in the milk so the cream doesn’t sit on top. Milk homogenization and the alteration of fat particles have been linked to atherosclerosis. Those who have been diagnosed with lactose intolerance and who cannot tolerate pasteurized milk, find that they can easily drink raw, unaltered milk. Lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose, the sugar in milk, is still intact in the raw product.” 

The incident in the Lower Mainland, with Home on the Range, is one of the first in B.C. in which the case is moving forward into the courts. Their hearing is slated to take place on Feb. 1.

For Michael Schmidt the fight is not just about raw milk, it’s about control of our food. “It is immense. The raw milk issue has turned into a rights issue. It affects so many people, it is a property rights issue, which brought thousands of Ontario landowners on our side. Thousands of farmers are on our side burdened by crippling regulations, consumers around the world are rallying for our cause and, of course, our core group of incredible devoted cow- and farm-share members. I think the support is much bigger than I can even imagine,” said Schmidt. “(I’ve seen) the awakening of people to the danger of losing our food freedom. I have watched with amazement how people have taken on this issue passionately and whole heartedly. (Its an) issue of food freedom. The freedom to choose the food we as individuals think is good, is healing, is strengthening us.”


Links:

Wild Thing Organics

BC Centre for Disease Control : www.bccdc.ca
BC Real Milk Movement: http://bovinity.webs.com/124618.htm
www.RAWUSA.ORG
Michael Schmidt and Glencolton Farm: http://www.glencoltonfarms.com/