Michael Schmidt is an Ontario farmer who was targeted in 2006 by the Province of Ontario (through the Grey-Bruce Health Unit and the Ministry of Natural Resources) for making unpasteurized milk available to his small buying group of customers who owned shares in his milking herd. We are talking less than 150 customers over a number of years, and less than 30 cows.
When the judgement for this case came down in 2010, Michael Schmidt was found not guilty and acquitted of all charges. This should have been the end of the story.
But the province appealed the decision! And won! Who let the province waste taxpayer money on an appeal like this? Was anyone injured? Was anyone dissatisfied with Michael Schmidt’s milk? Was there any offense whatsoever that would justify taking this action? No, there was not. Was the spirit of the law being followed when the Province appealed His Worship P. Kowarsky’s judgement? No, it was not.
THE MILK ACT
The Milk Act of Ontario was originally put into place in the 1930s. At the time, milk had become a dangerous commodity due to the unmanaged population growth in cities, the lack of refrigerated trucks to transport milk, a shortage of inspections or regulations in dairy farms pertaining to their cleanliness and standards, among other things (like corporate corruption). There were frequent outbreaks of “bad bacteria” in milk, causing sicknesses and death from tuberculosis and typhoid. In 1927 in fact, over 500 Montrealers died from a typhoid epidemic that was attributed to drinking contaminated milk.
By 1938 it was put into law through the Milk Act that all milk had to be pasteurized to destroy almost all bacteria (there has always been a small amount of allowable bacteria in milk). The spirit of the law was to protect consumers from a lack of standards and unsanitary conditions that were leading to sickness and death.
The cheapest way to do this at the time was to pasteurize. The concept of pasteurization (essentially: boiling) was discovered by Louis Pasteur in 1862. He realized that if he boiled a product – milk, wine, beer, bread dough, vegetables, fruits – the product would stop its natural tendency to ferment and instead become sterile. Boiling would kill all the bacteria, and the product would become benign and any possible disease would be eliminated before it could start reproducing.
Pasteur’s discoveries saved millions of people from untimely deaths by bacterial infection. This is the whole Germ Theory of disease: Kill all bacteria and the bad bacteria will go with it.
This is also known as throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
INTRODUCING THE MICROBIOME
A lot has changed in our understanding of bacteria since Louis Pasteur’s day. Now we know that our own cells are outnumbered by bacterial cells by a factor of 10, making us more bacteria than human by every measurement. Our bacteria live on our skin, our eyelashes, our hairs, our sex organs, our mouths and noses, throughout our entire body and especially along the digestive tract and the epithelium of our intestines.
Our bacteria protect our skin, create a living and fighting barrier against “bad bacteria”, ferment unusable fibers into nutritious fatty acids and other metabolites, and are part of every single thing we do. The name for this set of 100 trillion microbes within us is the Microbiome.
Not all of our microbiome is helpful bacteria. E. coli, despite its deadly reputation, is always present in benign quantities in our intestine. At any moment, we may have a little bit of Streptococcus Progenies, Listeria or Salmonella inside of us as well. The reason these bacterial strains don’t kill us is because we are so full of “beneficial” bacteria that essentially balance the conditions (through acidification or temperature control) to keep the “bad” bacteria in check.
All we have to do to suppress our bad bacteria is support our good bacteria. They will fight it out on their own without further ado.
SIDE NOTE: YOUR FETUS
One important thing to note is that the entire time a fetus is growing inside of you, it is in a completely sterile environment: No bacteria, no microbiome. The reason your gyno is so hell-bent on making you avoid deli meats, sushi and French cheese isn’t because she hates you – it’s because if Listeria or Salmonella makes its way into the fetus, the fetus doesn’t have any “good bacteria” to fight it off. This can result in miscarriage or birth defects.
However, the greatest risk of food-borne infection comes from agricultural produce – most recently lettuce, spinach, celery, cantaloupes, tomatoes and sprouts like mung beans and alfalfa. In particular, most outbreaks from produce have been from large, industrial farms (plant factories, let’s call them) that tend to be near feedlots (animal factories, let’s call them) and then irrigate with contaminated water.
However despite the fact that the greatest risk of bacterial contamination comes from produce, I have never, every heard any doctors advising pregnant women not to eat fruits and vegetables. In fact, we tend to hear the opposite.
The next greatest cause for concern for bacterial contamination is “deli meat”, which is just low quality factory meat processed in the cheapest possible way. Industrial food is a business, not an art form after all. You have to have a tough microbiome at the best of times to survive cheap deli meat, so skip it when you are pregnant.
The next worries – French cheese and sushi – are tricky because somehow the population of France exists even though pregnant women have been consuming raw milk and cheese for thousands of years; somehow the population of Japan exists even though pregnant women have been consuming raw fish for thousands of years (at least). If this was not the case, you would expect those countries to be depopulated. It is possible that French women and Japanese women have evolved a very specific microbiome to fight off any contamination before it can reach their fetuses, but that has not been studied. I just don’t know what to say about that.
Raw milk falls into the same category as French cheese and sushi. It is totally possible that raw milk can contain a small amount of Listeria (in fact even pasteurized milk is allowed to have a small quantity of it, and often does), and that while a healthy person with a robust microbiome can fight off the Listeria, a sterile fetus cannot.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) database shows that while some cases of Listeria have been documented from ingesting raw milk, there are more cases of Listeria documented from ingesting pasteurized milk. This is because although pasteurized milk has been sterilized, it is easily contaminated with “bad bacteria” like Listeria, but doesn’t have any “good bacteria” to fight back with.
Based on the “facts”, it would be more rational to advise pregnant women to avoid ALL dairy products, ALL raw fruits and vegetables, deli meats, ALL fermented foods, as well as undercooked meats and fish. Not sure what would be left for pregnant women to eat except grains and pulses, sugar, rancid fats (processed and oxidized rather than raw), and overcooked (inflammatory) meats – and I think you know where I stand on all of those items.
HOW TO SUPPORT THE MICROBIOME
The best way to keep pathogens at bay is not to sterilize yourself, but to strengthen your microbiome. I’m talking quantity and quality. Our Western diet and propensity for antibiotics and antibacterial sprays and soaps have wiped out the microbial diversity of our guts, and we need to cultivate and develop them back into the equivalent of beautiful rainforests. Here’s what you can do:
- Avoid antibiotics, when you can. Don’t go dying just to make a point. I was literally on a course of antibiotics for four straight years and somehow I am still here. It’s not the end of the world to go on antibiotics or put your children on antibiotics; just do your best to save them for when you really, really need them.
- Don’t eat industrial meat, so that you can avoid antibiotics. The majority of antibiotic use is to promote the swift growth of livestock and to keep them alive through both conditions and feed that would otherwise kill them. Most provinces, states and countries have laws that don’t allow antibiotics to be used in the last two weeks of an animal’s life before slaughter; this is neither closely regulated nor effective at keeping antibiotics out of the meat you buy. Organic meat is technically meant to be free from antibiotics. Best bet is to buy your meat from a small biodynamic farm, or from a butcher that personally knows where the meat comes from and what the conditions are like. Lots of supermarkets have people dressed up as butchers behind the “butcher counter”; this is just a costume.
- Don’t drink water that is contaminated with antibiotics. That means water that is downstream from a livestock operation, or water that goes through a city’s sewer filtration system. City water has famously high levels of antibiotics in it because antibiotics do not break down easily. You take them, you pee them out, someone else drinks them in, the concentrations continue to build up. Our city’s filtration systems are designed to remove hormones and antibiotics from our water, but it doesn’t seem to be working that way. The independent companies that provide water filtration (Pur, Brita and the like) claim to remove hormones, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals from the water they filter, but it’s hard to say how effective any of this is. Your best bet is to get water from an isolated mountaintop well or spring. Next bet: do your research, ask some questions and invest in the best water filtration system you can rationalize.
- Don’t drink water that is full of chlorine. Chlorine is put into water to kill bacteria. You are made up of bacteria. So don’t drink something that is trying to sterilize you. City water is chlorinated. See the previous instruction about what to do about it.
- Don’t use antibacterial wipes, soaps, sprays or mouthwashes. If you need to sterilize something, try using boiling water. If you just need to clean something, use hot water and soap, or vinegar and baking soda.
- Eat a wide variety of bacteria: from the skin of raw organic fruits and vegetables, to the wide assortment of crafted fermented products like cheese, kefir, kvass, sauerkraut, kimchee, kombucha, natto, real pickles, aged meats, to some extent wine, and anything else we have dreamed up. It is more effective to eat a single serving of fermented vegetables than to take an entire bottle of probiotics, so consider how you want to spend your time and money. Drinking raw milk is one way to get the the bacteria of “the barnyard” into your system without having to actually milk the cow yourself. In my review of “Epidemic of Absence”, I talk about how mothers who were exposed to milking sheds during their pregnancy consistently produce children who are free from auto-immune diseases. I will provide a link below.
- Shake hands with people you know and trust, who look healthy. Don’t shake hands with strangers, especially if they look sick. Your flora is your genetic wealth. Share it through touch with those who you care about and want to thrive. Use your eyes, your sense of smell (and taste where applicable), and your “gut sense” to determine if people you might have to have contact with are healthy or if they are carrying a bacterial infection that you don’t want to deal with. On the flip side, when you are feeling particularly strong, what’s the big deal in exposing yourself to some risk? Every bacterial exposure that you successfully fight off makes you stronger. We are only here today because our ancestors faced infections and pandemics and survived, not because they steered clear.
- Keep pets, garden, spend time in the soil, get dirty, visit animals and farms, climb trees, touch the great outdoors. You are not going to grow your rainforest sitting at your desk. There is bacteria all around us, all it takes is for you to go out and sample it.
BACK TO MICHAEL SCHMIDT AND HIS APPEAL
The Province of Ontario won its appeal against Michael Schmidt in 2012. He was fined more than $9000 and put on probation. At which point he became even more political and staged a hunger strike for more than 30 days. (However Schmidt continued to drink his own raw milk during the strike, so didn’t seem to suffer whatsoever.) I know that his milk operation was put on hold, because when I went through my back-alley contacts and tried to buy into his herd-share, I could not get access.
Ontario Court of Appeals photo from “Doors Open”
Finally on February 5th, 2014, Michael Schmidt was invited to the Ontario Court of Appeals to present his appeal of the Province’s appeal. This was just last week, and I attended the trial.
What struck me the most was how rigidly the judges seemed to be interpreting the outdated law, which is their prerogative, and how the only way to change the system would be to change the law rather than try to work within it.
Schmidt built a bridge between farmers and consumers by creating a cow-share or herd-share program, where carefully chosen consumers (read: not narks) could buy a “share” in his herd, and then buy milk from their share of the herd when available. In exchange, Schmidt would keep his herd on pasture when possible and practice traditional farming techniques which exclude antibiotic and hormone use. There is a small but growing demand for this kind of milk, but there is no real money to be made in providing it – in that it can’t be “scaled” up. A farmer willing to provide for and milk a small herd of dairy cows in this way is doing it partly as a labor of love, partly out of nostalgia, and partly to protect a vision of farming that once was – so that it can be again one day.
As it stands, and how the present law seems to be interpreted, nobody in Canada has the right to sell unpasteurized milk. However farmers on their own farms can drink unpasteurized milk from their own cows.
If unpasteurized milk was truly a health threat, the government would make it illegal for everyone including farmers to drink unpasteurized milk. The fact that farmers have been drinking unpasteurized milk and have not started a massive typhoid epidemic speaks to the safety of drinking raw milk when it is produced by careful farmers and small herds of cows. (In fact there are a handful of states in America, and countries in Europe where raw milk is legal and even available in stores and vending machines – and yet the typhoid epidemic has not panned out).
The problem is that the people who create and amend our laws, whether they like it or know it or not, are heavily influenced by the large corporations of this world, and their laws and amendments tend to favor industrial production over small-craft production. And these laws build on each other and create conditions where it is no longer possible or affordable to continue small-craft production, either because the licensing has become too expensive, the compliance and bureaucracy too onerous, or the inspections and redundancies too inefficient. And big business likes it that way.
HAS ANYONE BEEN SICK FROM MICHAEL SCHMIDT’S MILK?
What I find so interesting is that the Province went after Michael Schmidt so aggressively (undercover agents, multiple surveillances) despite the fact that there was not a single consumer complaint.
In fact, all of Schmidt’s customers had willingly sought him out, paid him a huge fee to join his cow-share, and then become repeat orderers of his milk. This is a high level of loyalty and repeat business that most companies would envy.
Another thing I find so interesting is that in 2008, Canadian corporation Maple Leaf Foods cut some corners at their meat processing plant which led to an outbreak of Listeriosis which killed 22 people. At no point did the government step in and demand that Maple Leaf Foods cease operations, pay a fine, or do anything at all. The company issued a voluntary recall of their meats that came from the sloppy plant, a recall that was only loosely followed. The company also voluntarily shut down its plant because it could not identify the source of the outbreak – it could have been anywhere in the plant, and there were not enough checks and balances to know.
A lot of mistakes were made, and as a result, 22 Canadians died.
You would think, perhaps, that Maple Leaf Foods president Michael McCain would be persecuted for these mistakes, and that the government would hound him down making him pay for what he had done. However this was not the case.
Instead, McCain cleverly got himself on television and issued a very sincere apology where he looked genuinely contrite. That contrition earned him instant forgiveness, and in fact he was named Business Newsmaker of the Year for how well he “handled” killing 22 people, in that the company’s stock dip and then recovery offered investors a stellar return.
The message is clear to other giant food processing companies: A heart-felt apology is worth more to investors and business strategists than money wasted on sanitation and standards any day. Profits before people. I really don’t have anything personal against Michael McCain, and his apology video (available on Youtube – I will post a link below), while not necessarily moving is at least serious and sobering.
However it doesn’t change the fact that the government turned a blind eye to the big corporate Michael, while persecuting the small dairy farmer Michael. It has occurred to me that if the government could have pulled some resources off of the “raw milk beat” and instead gotten more inspectors in the big processing plants, our citizens might have been a lot safer, and a lot less dead.
THE FARMING AND FOOD PRODUCTION ACT
The Farming and Food Production Act sounds like a good idea – maybe it’s something that protects small farmers and their rights to farm in a traditional, ecological, biodynamic system.
So is it? No way!
The Farming and Food Production Act is there to promote and push intensive industrial farming at all costs.
Like at what costs, you might ask? Well, how about this: the main tenet of the Act is that “Agricultural activities may include intensive operations that may cause discomfort and inconveniences to those on adjacent lands.” The kind of intensive, industrial farming that causes “discomfort and inconvenience” to neighbors is not the kind of farming that is sustainable and desirable!
What is discomfort, you ask? Discomfort is diarrhea caused by drinking water that is contaminated by feedlot effluent. Discomfort is not being able to sleep at night because a loud diesel generator on your property line is pumping water out of a stream 24/7 for irrigation.
What is inconvenience, you ask? Inconvenience is watching your well dry up because your potato farmer neighbor has used it all up for irrigation, which has leached all the nutrients from his soil so that he has to purchase greater and greater quantities of industrial fertilizer. Inconvenience is losing your streams and wetlands and their accompanying life due to dropping water tables.
This “discomfort” and “inconvenience” has been stamped into law so that you can have access to cheap, nutritionally-empty produce. Actually most of the industrial produce and meat protected in this Act is sent out of the country, and the profits are raked in by foreign multi-nationals rather than by your dear neighbor.
Is this an Act protecting farmers? Nope.
Is this an Act protecting consumers? Nope.
This is an Act protecting multi-national corporations who use “farmers” as their day-laborers and patsies.
In the “internet age” we read about things online and surmise that everybody is reading the same thing, and acting against wrongdoing on our behalf. We can “text” a vote about our disapproval about certain policies; we can sign petitions at Avaz.org and Change.org, and we tend to assume that these things matter and make a difference.
When I read about Michael Schmidt’s upcoming trial, I assumed it would get a lot of media coverage. I also assumed the trial would be well-attended by people who support Michael Schmidt, and people who care about our food system. I actually thought that it would be a waste of time to attend the trial because there wouldn’t be any room for me. I also assumed the trial would take place in a giant courtroom with hundreds of seats like I always see on television.
In fact the courtroom (Courtroom 1) was very small and only had room for 45 people including all the lawyers and press. I showed up an hour early “to get a seat”, but I didn’t need to. By the time the trial started at 10:30am, there weren’t more than 50 people there. I volunteered to watch in a second “viewing courtroom” (Courtroom 2) so that there would be ample seats for journalists, and also because I had a 6-year-old with me who might get bored and fidgety during the trial (I also brought a 14-year-old with me but I was not worried about her ability to pay attention!).
By about 11am, the viewing courtroom had also filled up – I would estimate nearly 100 people turned out in total, including lawyers and journalists. This is much, much less than I expected. And not really enough to make a difference. The judges will take up to six months to deliberate on their verdict. I’m not sure if that’s because the case is so complicated or if it’s a measure to make sure media attention has no chance to gain momentum.
There were three small pieces of online coverage after the trial – from CTV, CBC and the Toronto Sun. All three short reports contained the classic journalism style of seeking out both sides of the story without submitting any further research. So when the Sun concludes their article with this comment from the Province’s legal team, “We don’t need to wait for a widespread outbreak or epidemic to take action,” the Sun is clearly framing the story in a certain way. The Sun thinks raw milk is going to kill us all and has to be stopped. You can bet that Sun readers will take that message home to the dinner table.
In accredited journalism, the journalist has an obligation to report statements where available from “both sides” or all sides of any story; but it should never stop there. A journalist also has a responsibility to research those statements and provide evidence about their legitimacy, otherwise outlandish statements carry weight that they do not deserve (like that raw milk consumption will lead to “an epidemic”). I don’t see any of that supporting research happening in this raw milk story, or really in many reports at all. (This blog is obviously not accredited journalism – I can just write whatever I want to write, which is how I like it).
WHY DOES MICHAEL SCHMIDT’S APPEAL MATTER?
Because food matters. Because your right to traditionally raised and farmed food matters. Because farmers matter. Because what you put in your mouth matters. Because the health of your children and their children matter. Because if you don’t care about these small things now, your rights will continue to erode until it’s too late.
The big companies, supported by the government, want you to subsist on fast food, convenience packaging, reconstituted “meat” products, and pasteurized and irradiated “food products”. Then they want to shove you into the medical system and “cure” you of all your nutritional degeneration with on-patent medications and expensive treatments. All you have to do is study Economics 101 to know that this is the best path for our economy and the best policy for growth.
What you have to ask yourself, every time you go to the market, read the newspaper, or walk in the country – is whether growth and economic prosperity are the correct model for our food system and food security? Is food the same as a microchip or a running shoe? I am arguing here that food does not fit into our existing economic models, and needs to be protected in a new category.
I think it’s time to start caring about where our food comes from, because no one else is going to do it for us.
LATER UPDATE: WHAT HAPPENED
Michael Schmidt lost his appeal. There was no media coverage.
Here is the transcript from Michael Schmidt’s original trial in 2010 where he was acquitted of all charges.
The Milk Act of Ontario.
Read the Farming and Food Protection Act, which should be called the Industrial Food Promotion Act instead.
Three different databases showing higher incidence of Listeria in pasteurized milk than raw milk: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Outbreak Database, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest
News coverage of the February 5th appeal: the Toronto Sun, CTV online, CBC online
My review of Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Auto-Immune Disease by Moses Velasquez
What you need to know about all the scare-mongering headlines you may read about raw milk, elegantly written by Chris Kessler in “Raw Milk Reality: Is Raw Milk Really Dangerous?”
Michael McCain’s apology video made after killing 22 people with a lapse in processing standards
How to write a letter to your Minister of Parliament, and a list of Ontario’s Legislative Assembly (MPPs)
Print out this petition, get signatures and return it to the Canadian Consumer Raw Milk Advocacy Group so that they can present it to Premier Wynne at the right strategic time.
Link to The Bovine, which covers issues about raw milk in Ontario