The politics of raw milk

Raw milk may represent an opportunity for Canadian agriculture to recognize the diverse nature of markets

charlebois-sylvainLOGOGUELPH, ON, May 11, 2014/ Troy Media/ – 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 currently 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 as a public health matter. It is much more complicated than that though.

Since 1991, regulations require that milk be pasteurized in order to be sold in Canada. The CFIA 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 accept the fact 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.

The ever-mounting media frenzy for stories about food safety and natural foods has clearly generated a great deal of confusion in consumers’ minds. Case in point: results of a recent survey suggest that several responding consumers are concerned about raw milk without being able to accurately describe what raw milk is. The risk communication game is clearly getting problematical for governments and industry alike.

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.

The politics of raw milk is always won, or lost, on the basis of trust. Since consumers tend to trust farmers, and Canadian farmers have a powerful lobbying group, the political nature of the raw milk debate in our country is unique.

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 would likely appeal to a marginal number of consumers, dairy farmers consider this as a legitimate menace, however small.

Facing the influential dairy sector are small farm operators like Michael Schmidt who want some attention as well and are emphasising the virtues of local, straight-to-consumer milk distribution. They, too, warrant the trust of consumers. As a result, the battle to gain the trust of the masses continues.

Nonetheless, raw milk may very well represent an opportunity for Canadian agriculture to recognize the diverse nature of markets. In other words, many modern consumers look for original, natural foods and more than ever seek different benefits. As such, economic growth and innovation in agrifood 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.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Associate Dean at the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

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4 Responses to "The politics of raw milk"

  1. rawmilkmike   May 11, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    According to these 2 US government
    studies raw milk actually has a negative risk factor.

    1. Raw Milk Consumption among Patients
    with Non–Outbreak-related Enteric Infections, Minnesota, USA,
    2001–2010 An estimated 1.7% per year or 1 in 59 raw milk consumers
    in Minnesota may have acquired an illness caused by 1 of these
    enteric pathogens.

    2. From the Centers for Disease Control
    and Prevention. An estimated 15% per year or 1 in 6 Americans get
    sick and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases.

    It looks like the US Center for Disease
    Control has inadvertently demonstrated that people who don’t drink
    raw milk are 9 times more likely to contract a so called foodborne
    illness than people that do. Or in other words raw milk prevents 1.3
    million cases of foodborne disease and 90 deaths every year in the
    US.

  2. Edward Davis   May 13, 2014 at 3:40 pm

    I think the MN Raw Milk study was unique in its extrapolations of the epidemiological multipliers to create their estimate of enteric infections.
    Also, no one is concerned about the negative effects of homogenized, pasteurized milk such as cardiovascular illness, asthma, and allergies.  They do much more harm to the public.

  3. Richard Barrett   May 17, 2014 at 9:03 pm

    For the most recent Milk Safety go to http://www.rawmilkinstitute.net/about-rawmi/   For more general info on raw milk consumption go to http://www.rawmilkconsumer.ca   

    Check out Organic Pastures in California which supplies Raw Milk to over 90,000 people every week without one sickness.

  4. Troy Media
    Troy Media   June 2, 2014 at 11:59 am

    Letter to the Editor:
    Why is it that “When it
    comes to raw milk, risk perceptions vary greatly between countries?”
    Because standards differ. Farm fresh raw milk can be produced
    safely, and is done so in many places around the world. There are two types of raw milk:  raw milk meant for
    pasteurization, versus farm fresh unpasteurized milk that is packaged and
    intended for consumption. Standards such as can be found at http://rawmilkinstitute.net
    prove fresh milk can be produced safely.  And whether you like it or not,
    in his 20 years of producing fresh milk, Ontario raw milk producer Michael
    Schmidt has not had even one illness linked to his farm. Does that sound like
    every drop is a high risk food?
    How about looking at how much money is saved by those consuming real food, as
    opposed to packaged processed foods?   The real cost in health care
    comes from the garbage people put in their bodies, not from something as
    low-risk as farm fresh unpasteurized milk, from artisanal dairies.
    There are risks everywhere. To say one shouldn’t consume fresh milk because of
    potential cost to health care is like saying one shouldn’t drive a car because
    of the billions spent on hospital stays from accidents. It’s time for an
    evidence-based analysis of the risk of harm from consuming fresh milk.
     There is nothing zero risk. The question is how to minimize risk.
    That is easily done with proper sanitation and intelligent procedures.
    30 years ago we had almost 4,000 dairy farms in British Columbia. Today there
    are 491.  Also, 30 years ago we had twice as many dairy cows in Canada,
    yet overall milk production is higher today.  This has been accomplished
    through a combination of genetic manipulation and high energy diets.
    How do you fit grass-fed
    cows producing less than half of what today’s commercial dairy cows produce,
    into a system that is production-based?   We need to look at more
    sustainable agricultural practices.  Starting with the option to be a
    dairy farmer to a local community.
    Today in BC, to get approved as a dairy under the supply managed system, (which
    is an impossible feat on its own) one would have to put up $43,000 per cow,
    just to have the license to be a vendor.  Do the math.  A
    small hobby farm with a couple of cows, would cost $84,000, excluding the property,
    shelter, equipment and cows.  It would take a lifetime just to pay off the
    capitalization. 
    The argument against raw milk being available for human consumption, – honestly
    – is not about concern for public health.   It is about a market that
    is 100% controlled.  Supply Management in Canada keeps consumers from
    accessing the products they demand, utterly contrary to the statutory mandate
    of the provincial Milk Marketing Board.  Where can you find milk from
    grass fed cows on grocery shelves in Canada?   Where can you find
    milk that hasn’t been processed, on the shelves of grocery stores in
    Canada? 
    Why can we purchase fresh raw milk across the border – such as in Washington
    State, and New York State – and bring it back to Canada to consume, and it is
    accepted as safe, yet we cannot produce it safely here in Canada?
    Dr. Sylvain Charlebois states Science based evidence:– ” 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.” but he has left out some seriously important
    information:
    In order for human illness to occur FOUR THINGS MUST ALIGN:
    * a pathogen must be present
    * that pathogen must be virulent
    * the pathogen load must be high enough
    * and the host must be susceptible
    Milk intended for pasteurization, without attention to ensuring the pathogen is
    not present, will produce those results. It is time to look at today’s science,
    with today’s technology, and the world will see that producing Farm Fresh
    Unpasteurized Milk is the better and safer alternative.
    So again: why is it that
    “When it comes to raw milk, risk perceptions vary greatly between
    countries?
    Alice Jongerden
    Chilliwack, BC
    Farm Fresh Milk and Local
    Sustainable Agriculture Activist

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