Surrounded by supporters, two calves and with a glass of raw milk in his hand, Ontario dairy farmer Michael Schmidt vowed Friday to continue to fight for what he calls “food freedom rights.”
He had just been fined $9,150 and placed on one year’s probation by an Ontario court for 13 charges related to the production, distribution and sale of unpasteurized milk and cheese through a cow-share business.
“There is a different consciousness and a different awareness in regards to food rights,” said Schmidt outside the courthouse in Newmarket, 60 kilometres north of Toronto. “The glass of milk has become the symbol of the food rights movement.”
Last September, Schmidt was convicted on appeal under Ontario’s Health Protection and Promotion Act. An earlier court decision in January 2010 had acquitted him of all the charges.
In Canada, it is illegal to market, sell, distribute or deliver unpasteurized milk, cream or cheese. But it is legal for farmers and their immediate families to consume it.
Schmidt admitted he supplied raw milk and cheese to 150 families through a cow-share business. Members paid $300 memberships for partial shares in 26 cows kept at Glencolten Farms, about 2/1/2 hours northwest of Toronto.
He says he will not pay the fine on a matter of principle and will risk jail time to stand up for his beliefs.
“I will put my life on the line to protect these rights of people until (this issue) is properly dealt with,” he told the more than 60 supporters who attended the sentencing hearing.
Ontario Justice Peter Tetley ordered that the total fine be paid within a year and as part of his probation, Schmidt was ordered not to commit any offences related to raw milk or face imprisonment.
Before the sentence, Tetley acknowledged the more 100 letters and emails of support he’s received about this case showed the need for legislators to review the 70-year-old ban.
Until then, he said he has no choice but to hand down a stiff sentence in an effort to deter Schmidt and other farmers from ignoring the prohibition.
“(Mr. Schmidt) is a man of principle,” he admitted. “He’s willing to fight for his principles. There’s a lot to admire about Mr. Schmidt.”
And although he was aware of many people in the province, the country and even in his own family who consume unpasteurized milk to no ill health effect, he had to rule according to the “public health component” of this case.
“The present legislation is inconsistent, at best,” said Tetley, explaining that it is not up to the courts but the government to change current laws.
The judge also likened Schmidt’s battle with legislators to the one successfully waged years ago by a shopkeeper who wanted businesses in Ontario to be able to open on Sundays.
Crown prosecutor Alan Ryan asked the court for a fine of $10,400 and probation. Defence lawyer Karen Selick told the court Schmidt should, at most, face a $10 fine because his crimes did no harm.
Schmidt also took the stand Friday. When asked if he wanted a glass of water, he replied “No, milk please” to laughter in the courtroom.
He also told the court he gave away all his possessions and that the farm and cow-share no longer belong to him. The business is co-operatively owned by members who are “protecting their farmers” like himself.
“This entire case was not about the money,” he said. “It was a matter of principle.”
Schmidt was charged in 2006 following an undercover police operation and armed raid of his farm. In 1994, he was fined $3,500 on similar charges and placed on two years probation.
Earlier this month, the outspoken farmer ended a month-long hunger strike following an impromptu meeting with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.
Schmidt’s lawyer, Karen Selick, says she plans to appeal the sentence.
Canada is the only G8 country to ban the sale of raw milk.
Those who drink unpasteurized milk claim there are health benefits to the liquid that pasteurized, regulated milk cannot provide.
Health Canada warns consumers not to drink raw milk because it can contain several dangerous bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria and can cause vomiting, diarrhea, kidney failure, miscarriage and even death. Milk pasteurization has been mandatory in Canada since 1991.