Author | Photos Kayla Chobotiuk

Food Fads in Review: Drinking Illegal Raw Milk from a Toronto Farm-Share

For millennia, people across the globe have been drinking raw milk. This type of milk has not undergone the sanitation process of being heated to a high temperature to kill pathogens—otherwise known as pasteurization. In the 1920s, when milk started travelling from farms to cities and we hadn’t figured out the whole refrigeration thing 100% yet, contaminated raw milk made people sick with tuberculosis. The process of pasteurization to avoid disease became widespread soon after that.

Decades later in 1981, the federal government banned all sales of raw milk in Canada under the Food and Drug Regulations Act, and raw milk has been illegal in Canada ever since. Nearly 100 years after the tuberculosis outbreak, our government and health authorities continue to cite tuberculosis as one of the main reasons to avoid raw milk, and it continues to be legal in Europe, Africa, Asia, and parts of the US.

Today, issues of raw milk exist in a kind of legal grey area. People who own a cow are legally allowed to do use that cow’s milk in any way they please. But as soon as someone sells his or her cow’s milk, that milk becomes illegal unless it has been pasteurized. Cue the raw milk legal loophole, otherwise known as a cow-share: since there are no specifications about how many people are allowed to own the same cow, a cow-share involves people pooling together in joint ownership of one cow and its resulting raw milk.

The demand for raw milk is increasing, and cow-share programs are flourishing. Proponents of raw milk list a shopping list of reasons why it’s worth the hassle:

  • Pasteurization kills many of the beneficial enzymes found in milk, making it difficult to digest.
  • Vitamins in pasteurized milk are difficult to absorb because of the distorted fat content.
  • The drugs and antibiotics pumped into commercial dairy cows linger in the milk, posing a threat to human health.
  • A commercial dairy cow’s diet of grain and corn lowers the milk’s overall nutritional content.

Alternatively, raw milk made from drug-free, grass-fed cows has all of the digestive enzymes necessary for easy digestion—making it suitable for those with lactose intolerance as well as hosting a slew of good fats, vitamins, minerals, antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-parasitic properties. When compared to the ill-effects many experience from consuming milk, raw milk has seemed like the obvious, if only a little inconvenient, solution. Its easily digestible mecca of health benefits has caused many to believe it’s an elixir worth fighting for.

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One of these people is Michael Schmidt, notorious raw milk advocate and Ontario farmer. As far as raw milk in Toronto goes, Schmidt is the godfather. Since he started his raw milk operation 21 years ago, he has faced multiple milk-related lawsuits, thousands of dollars in fines, and several police raids of his property. Despite all the controversy surrounding him, Schmidt hasn’t been deterred from sharing the substance he describes as “liquid love” with others.

Eager to understand how a substance as innocuous as milk could be worth devoting your life to fighting for, I arranged to meet him at his farm-share program in West Grey, Ontario. I was eager to taste some of what I could only assume was going to be life-changing milk. Schmidt’s farm-share patrons buy into his whole farm operation (not just the cows), and as a result his is a farm-share program instead of a cow-share.

What I found was an open drive way with a sign that read, “This land is our land, back off government,” and a man with a faint German accent and big, dirt stained-hands. “It’s not about raw milk. It’s really not,” he explained. “The angle that it became raw milk is only because I got attacked on raw milk. I would have done the same thing about anything else I was being attacked on.”

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As we spoke between two half drank cups of milk, thick with tangs of blue cheese and buttermilk, he seemed both resolute and tired: “I’ve been trying to justify why people should drink raw milk for 21 years. I kind of got to the point where I said, ‘There’s no argument about it.’ People need to make an informed choice themselves.”

But getting accurate information about raw milk can be difficult. Government websites and leading nutritionists caution against the dangerous health risks associated with the unpasteurized white stuff, while lesser-known holistic health journals praise the substance as “liquid medicine.”

Still, always ready to jump on the next train that promises a healthier, purer existence, I was undeniably intrigued. But I’ve realized how difficult procuring unpasteurized milk in Canada is: To join Schmidt’s farm-share program and have regular access to raw milk, you have to fork over $2000 dollars upfront, and be willing to either drive to West Grey, Ontario once a week, OR meet his wife Elisa at Forest Hill every Tuesday to pick up your milk. It seems ridiculous that getting a different kind of milk in Canada is harder than getting a gun in America. And so the promise of my shiny new raw milk lifestyle remains decidedly out of reach.

When I asked Schmidt why a substance as innocent as milk is so heavily regulated in Canada (especially since other countries drink unpasteurized milk without problems) he explained that it’s not really about safety. It’s to protect the supply management. “We have a lot of scientists who simply lie. The Dairy Research Chair at Guelph University is financed by the dairy farmers of Ontario. The Chair of the department went on TV and said, “Yes I grew up on raw milk, but drinking raw milk is 1000 times more dangerous than drinking pasteurized milk.” The claim is so unscientific and unfounded without any research, but he just makes that up and no one questions him.”

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Schmidt is quick to say that raw milk can be dangerous, especially if it comes from commercial dairy cows or isn’t handled properly, but he also knows the ways that we ship and handle food have changed since the 1920s. “The practice, the science, the knowledge—everything has changed since then,” he says. “We have the technology and sophistication today to produce raw milk safely.”

The fact that raw milk is so demonized exposes a deeper set of problems within the Canadian dairy industry—an industry controlled by a select powerful few who fund large sectors of government and public health research, simultaneously stripping us of the freedom to choose what we eat. The problem is so much bigger than wanting to drink raw milk and Instagram about it; it’s about not letting private interests get in the way of public health.

Knowing that I wasn’t about to change the state of the Canadian dairy industry by declaring my sudden thirst for raw milk, I savoured the remainder of the glass that had been poured out for me. It was richer than whole milk and must have hovered somewhere around 4.5% MF. The undeniable blue cheese tang was too foreign to call pleasant, but the process of consuming the creamy off-white liquid felt substantial next to all my experiences I now realized had been watered-down and bleached-white. It was an entirely different action, one that made me wonder what to call the other stuff I’ve been drinking all my life. I just wish I could have taken some home.

Verdict: Drinking illegal raw milk: Hopefully here to stay, has been happening for thousands of years, definitely not a fad.

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8 Comments

  1. October 27, 2015

    Dear Claudia, 

    Thanks for your article. You’re experience helps me understand how people get drawn into consuming raw milk. If I may, I would like to add a few comments. 

    First, if fresh milk tastes like blue cheese, you may want to set aside. 

    Second, even while Mr Schmidt calls me a liar, he agreed with me. Indeed what he told you is almost identical to what I said on television. He acknowledged that there are hazards associated with raw milk and advised that we have better means to monitor and manage milk quality then we did in the 1920s when pasteurized milk ordinances were being established in most developed nations. 

    Where we differ is that Mr. Schmidt looks past what is certainly true that many of those early recognized pathogens still pose significant risks and there is a growing list of newly recognized pathogens. That risk is even higher to you as a one time customer versus his regular customers who have built up immunity to pathogens occurring in raw milk, in particular, his raw milk. 

    Also, I do not oppose sale of raw milk provided that we respect the current regulations and processes available to change those regulations.  About half of the US states, for example, permit sale of raw milk but under particular and stringent conditions. A properly manged raw milk supply market includes clear risk communication so customers can make informed decisions. It would also include provisions to protect the very old and the very young who are much more likely to be killed by pathogenic organisms that are more likely to occur in raw milk. 

    For example, after years of encouraging, I finally persuaded my aging mother to stop drinking raw milk. She was experiencing various health problems and was very frail. I knew that a bout with one of the toxigenic E. coli that occur frequently in milk or Listeria or another pathogen would could kill her.  Imagine my frustration when she visited a homeopath who told her to drink raw milk. That’s why we need regulations; we need mechanisms to protect the uniformed from vendors like Mr. Schmidt and so called ‘professionals’ who with complete lack of evidence ascribe healing powers to raw milk.

  2. ZakYoung
    November 3, 2015

    @Art Hil

  3. MitchellJamesMorse
    November 4, 2015

    Regardless of benefits or not, glad that as a BC goat farmer, I get the freedom to choose to drink our own raw milk EVERY day. I’m free of this oppressive BS brought on by soulless puppets. EVERYONE should enjoy the same freedom of choice.

  4. Baywolf
    November 4, 2015

    Health Units mindsets are still in the 20s.  Real milk bears as much resemblance to what is sold in the stores as canned yellow applejuice is to real freshly pressed juice from apples on the farm. Nutrients follow the same pattern.

  5. Bill Murphy
    November 4, 2015

    Dr. Hill, this is a contradiction:  You say that you do not oppose the sale of raw milk “provided we respect the current regulations,” but the current regulations ban all sales and distribution. So, you don’t oppose something as long as it remains banned?  
    How do you suggest Canadian consumers go about legally obtaining it, given this ban that you want respected? 
    You also talk about respecting “the processes available to change those regulations.”   Raw milk supporters have been lobbying via these “processes” for the last 20+ years to get the law changed and politicians don’t even bother answering our letters.  Are we to wait another 20 or 50 years?

  6. AliceJongerden
    November 4, 2015

    Dear Dr. Hill,
    Thank you for providing this opportunity for discussion.    I would like
    to ask you:   What would you like to see in a “properly managed raw
    milk supply market”?
    As you are likely aware, there ways for producing farm-fresh,
    unprocessed milk, such as the standards, methods, training, and risk
    analysis tools developed by the Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI), that ensure
    that milk can be consistently produced with zero pathogens (otherwise
    known as the Risk Analysis and Management Planning (RAMP) food safety
    system).
    Frankly, when I read studies of pathogens in raw milk and outbreaks
    related to raw milk, I find them to be intentionally misleading.   I
    have not found a single one which differentiates between unpasteurized
    milk that has been produced by methods intended for pasteurization vs.
    milk which has been produced by methods intended for direct
    consumption.  And the two products – one intended for processing vs one
    intended for direct consumption – are entirely different.   An example
    is that 1999 study by your colleagues Steele and her co-authors:  In
    “Survey of Ontario Bulk Tank Raw Milk for Food-Borne Pathogens” – they
    intentionally extrapolated results from bulk tank milk to all
    unprocessed milk. (Their article starts with:  “Raw (unpasteurized) milk
    can be a source of food-borne pathogens. Raw milk consumption results
    in sporadic disease outbreaks.”)
    I personally know the differences and can compare them, because I grew
    up on a commercial dairy farm but I’m also trained in the RAWMI RAMP
    food safety system.  If I as a simple farmer know the difference, then
    how can I believe that “the experts” don’t know the difference?
    And the scale of a farm operation is no indication of procedures.   Even
    the small “family farm” may unwittingly be using procedures only
    appropriate for pasteurized milk.   How many outbreaks were caused by a
    farmer not knowing how to prevent contamination in the first place, or
    even that it can be prevented?
    You are right about U.S. states where raw milk is legalized having
    strict standards.  Every state where it is legal has standards written
    into law.  But, what is lacking is any mention of training — so  why
    not add training as well, and then “warning labels” about risk do not
    have to be placed on the products?   RAWMI training and creating the
    appropriate risk management plans for your farm is not onerous – I’ve
    done it myself.   The training is still free.  And current RAWMI-trained
    farmers include every farm size from 3 to 400 head of dairy livestock,
    both cows and goats. Check out the test results of RAWMI-listed farmers
    on the RAWMI website — they’re meeting state and federal standards for
    post-pasteurized milk.
    But can the raw milk community get support from government for this
    training or research, or grants like the commercial dairy industry
    gets?  No.   Grant requests from university-level researchers who want
    to study raw milk consumption safety (as opposed to “proving danger”)
    are turned down on the grounds that “raw milk is illegal” (one such
    grant request was turned down earlier this year).    So, the scientific
    playing field is NOT equal.   “Your side” – the anti-raw milk side –
    gets hefty funding from both government and the supply-managed
    commercial dairy industry – such as the DFO-funding of your Department. 
     Our grass-roots movement, on the other hand, has nothing but
    hard-working, small farmers who depend on the free market and ordinary
    consumers — we can’t afford to privately fund research that government
    refuses to fund.
    (It should also be mentioned that international QRMA studies already
    show that the existing risk of raw milk to the consumer is very low – it
    is no higher than the risk of many other common foods — such as  leafy
    vegetables, home-cooked chicken and hamburger, etc.  If warning labels
    should be placed upon raw milk, then they should also be equally placed
    on these foods.)

  7. AliceJongerden
    November 4, 2015

    @Art Hil Dear Dr. Hill,
    Thank you for providing this opportunity for discussion.    I would like
    to ask you:   What would you like to see in a “properly managed raw
    milk supply market”?
    As you are likely aware, there ways for producing farm-fresh,
    unprocessed milk, such as the standards, methods, training, and risk
    analysis tools developed by the Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI), that ensure
    that milk can be consistently produced with zero pathogens (otherwise
    known as the Risk Analysis and Management Planning (RAMP) food safety
    system).
    Frankly, when I read studies of pathogens in raw milk and outbreaks
    related to raw milk, I find them to be intentionally misleading.   I
    have not found a single one which differentiates between unpasteurized
    milk that has been produced by methods intended for pasteurization vs.
    milk which has been produced by methods intended for direct
    consumption.  And the two products – one intended for processing vs one
    intended for direct consumption – are entirely different.   An example
    is that 1999 study by your colleagues Steele and her co-authors:  In
    “Survey of Ontario Bulk Tank Raw Milk for Food-Borne Pathogens” – they
    intentionally extrapolated results from bulk tank milk to all
    unprocessed milk. (Their article starts with:  “Raw (unpasteurized) milk
    can be a source of food-borne pathogens. Raw milk consumption results
    in sporadic disease outbreaks.”)
    I personally know the differences and can compare them, because I grew
    up on a commercial dairy farm but I’m also trained in the RAWMI RAMP
    food safety system.  If I as a simple farmer know the difference, then
    how can I believe that “the experts” don’t know the difference?
    And the scale of a farm operation is no indication of procedures.   Even
    the small “family farm” may unwittingly be using procedures only
    appropriate for pasteurized milk.   How many outbreaks were caused by a
    farmer not knowing how to prevent contamination in the first place, or
    even that it can be prevented?
    You are right about U.S. states where raw milk is legalized having
    strict standards.  Every state where it is legal has standards written
    into law.  But, what is lacking is any mention of training — so  why
    not and training as well, and then “warning labels” about risk do not
    have to be placed on the products?   RAWMI training and creating the
    appropriate risk management plans for your farm is not onerous – I’ve
    done it myself.   The training is still free.  And current RAWMI-trained
    farmers include every farm size from 3 to 400 head of dairy livestock,
    both cows and goats. Check out the test results of RAWMI-listed farmers
    on the RAWMI website — they’re meeting state and federal standards for
    post-pasteurized milk.
    But can the raw milk community get support from government for this
    training or research, or grants like the commercial dairy industry
    gets?  No.   Grant requests from university-level researchers who want
    to study raw milk consumption safety (as opposed to “proving danger”)
    are turned down on the grounds that “raw milk is illegal” (one such
    grant request was turned down earlier this year).    So, the scientific
    playing field is NOT equal.   “Your side” – the anti-raw milk side –
    gets hefty funding from both government and the supply-managed
    commercial dairy industry – such as the DFO-funding of your Department. 
     Our grass-roots movement, on the other hand, has nothing but
    hard-working, small farmers who depend on the free market and ordinary
    consumers — we can’t afford to privately fund research that government
    refuses to fund.
    (It should also be mentioned that international QRMA studies already
    show that the existing risk of raw milk to the consumer is very low – it
    is no higher than the risk of many other common foods — such as  leafy
    vegetables, home-cooked chicken and hamburger, etc.  If warning labels
    should be placed upon raw milk, then they should also be equally placed
    on these foods.)

  8. Richard Barrett
    November 5, 2015

    It thrills me to know that Michael is mentioning the Raw Milk Institute and it’s standards ‘RAMP’.  I would like to add to his comments which I second.  First that his cows do not have Johne’s Disease as the majority of the dairy farmers of Canada do according to their info.  That is why Alberta Dairy farms are paying $500,000.00 to the University of Calgary for a total in the next five years to help stop the spread.  Cows that have Johne’s Disease is the main source of a bacteria known as MAP which causes Crohn’s Disease.   There is only two farms in Alberta that do not feed GMO supplements to their cattle and they are Organic according to Ask A Dairy Farmer in the Alberta Milk web. The average Somatic Cell Count in Alberta is almost 200,000 and the Raw Milk Institute Certified farms average is less than 20,000.   The Energy level of Michael’s cows milk is over 80.  The energy level of pasteurized Organic milk is 13 and regular store milk is 12.    Really, which is healthier and safer?  Today, over 70,000  people drank raw milk from Organic Pastures farm without one sickness.  Organic Pastures is a Raw Milk Institute Certified Farm.

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