Federal government ponders raw milk sales

Underground market continues | Ottawa urged to develop policy to protect consumers

GUELPH, Ont. — The door may be opening to lawful raw milk sales in Canada, according to a senior official with Health Canada.

“We see possible venues in the future of producing a safe product,” said Jeff Farber, director of the bureau of microbial hazards.

It could involve a regulatory approach at the provincial and/or federal level, he added.

However, Health Canada’s official position maintains that the risk of drinking milk that has not been pasteurized outweighs possible benefits.

Raw milk sales were prohibited in Canada in 1991, but there’s no restriction on drinking it. In fact, statistics show that it is consumed by families on close to 90 percent of Canada’s dairy farms.

Farber said consumer interest in raw milk was low in 1991 and rejected the argument that the decision to prohibit sales was an arbitrary one.

“It’s the food industry’s responsibility to produce safe food, not the government’s. The government provides oversight and verification,” he said April 22 during the Science to Policy: Raw Milk Case Study symposium hosted by the University of Guelph’s food science department.

“We did look at just leaving the status quo (in 1991), but we got a lot of pushback from health organizations and dairy farmers.… In today’s environment, it would be very different in moving forward and in looking at a lot of different options.”

Expressing a personal view, he said other food poses a risk for Canadians that is as great or greater. The risks can be minimized through labelling, education, hazard analysis critical control point protocols and shorter travel distances for raw milk, he added.

Farber was responding to comments about raw milk sales’ current black market status in Canada.

“The raw milk industry isn’t going to go away in Canada, no matter how many farmers go to jail, so why can’t we find a way to integrate it,” raw milk consumer Margo McIntosh said.

Added Dr. Catherine Donnelly, a nutritionist with the University of Vermont: “Putting raw milk sales underground is totally counter to protecting consumers.”

Ontario dairy farmer and raw milk advocate Michael Schmidt questioned the premise of the conference, which organizers had introduced as an examination of how science is developed into policy.

“What I’ve experienced is that there’s a policy, and the science comes to support that policy,” Schmidt said.

“The issue here is, can we develop a policy of making governing of this country easier by easing off the control factor and increasing the education factor?”

Schmidt said raw milk can be marketed in many American states and the European Union and cited health professionals from Germany and Switzerland who have said raw milk provides health benefits for children and pregnant women. He also said raw milk is routinely provided in some German hospitals.

Schmidt said he has developed a list of protocols on his farm that include:

  • maintaining a closed herd that is free of bovine tuberculosis, brucellosis and Johne’s disease
  • regularly testing his milk for quality and the presence of pathogens
  • having his premises evaluated annually by an independent dairy inspector

Schmidt continues to produce raw milk for distribution on his farm near Durham, Ont., despite recently losing a decision at the Court of Appeal for Ontario concerning his cow-share marketing arrangement.

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