Megan Ogilvie, The Toronto Star
May 17, 2008 04:30 AM
Amid the idyllic peacefulness of a Grey-Bruce County farm, a milk battle is brewing
Michael Schmidt strides down the country lane, his black and white border collie jogging ahead to sniff at clumps of dirt.
When the farmer reaches his back pasture, he calls to the dog in German and Beppo streaks into the field to round up the 30-odd Canadienne cows grazing the new spring grass. The sleek animals trot towards the fence. Their deep brown flanks glisten in the afternoon sun.
“Ach,” says Schmidt. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
These are the cows that are causing all the fuss. More specifically, it’s the milk that streams from the teats of these cows — thick, creamy, yellow milk, sold unpasteurized in glass jars — that has the Ontario government and two public health units taking Schmidt to court.
It has launched a flurry of investigation into Schmidt’s farming practices, and officials have used surveillance cameras and a full-out raid on his farm in 2006 to collect evidence. A mole was even sent to infiltrate the farmer’s inner circle.
Things ticked happily along until 1994 when officials raided the farm and charged him with selling raw milk. Schmidt hired a lawyer to help him fight the charges, but at the end of the long struggle, which was peppered with bizarre and sinister events — a cousin was kidnapped, he says, and two cows murdered — he ended up pleading guilty and losing 200 hectares of the farm to cover legal costs.
After things settled, Schmidt and his farm had 12 years of peace. His raw milk enterprise grew, and the farmer clawed out of debt by selling cartons of eggs, homemade loaves of organic wheat bread and bacon and sausage from the pigs.
But then, on a dreary November morning in 2006, ministry officials flooded his farm. As Schmidt complied with their orders and answered their questions, one of his employees videotaped the raid for their own evidence.
“We always kept the cameras with us because I knew, for 12 years I knew, they would be back,” says Schmidt.
Footage shows ministry officials entering the dairy dressed in biohazard suits. After eight hours, officials left with bottles of raw milk and all of Schmidt’s dairy, even his cheese-making equipment.
Schmidt later learned a team from the Ministry of Natural Resources had been watching his farm for months. In fact, two officers went undercover as regular citizens to gain access to his milk — and to get the evidence needed to lay the 20 charges now before the courts.
The Regional Municipality of York’s Health Services Department prohibited Schmidt from distributing raw milk within its borders in December 2006. In May 2007, the region served Schmidt with an order from the Ontario Superior Court prohibiting him from further contravening the 2006 order.
When Schmidt did not comply, officials tracked his activity in Thornhill in January with the help of surveillance cameras. Ministry and public health officials would not comment on either of the two cases while they are before the courts.
Kathryn Boor, a professor and department chair of food science at Cornell University, says there is no solid scientific evidence that consuming raw milk can cure health problems and ailments. But, she adds, that does not stop people from believing that it can.
“A huge part of medicine is faith and believing that you’re going to get better.”
University of Guelph food scientist Art Hill says studies show pasteurization does not diminish the nutritional qualities of milk.
“From the best data we have, I can’t see any particular advantage to drinking raw milk.”