From Edible Vancouver magazine, by Michael Marrapese:
During a recent trip to France, I stopped at a small agricultural store that sold not only tools, farm clothing and fencing wire to farmers, but also local cheeses, wines, vinegars, jams and cured meats. What surprised me the most were the clearly labeled containers of raw milk. In BC, only the Milk Marketing Board is allowed to distribute raw milk. It essentially manages the milk supply, buying milk from farmers across the province at a fixed price, transporting milk to producers and bottlers, testing for quality and microbial content, and ensuring a consistent product to secondary processors.
Supply management, as the name implies, involves regulating, controlling and manipulating the supply of a product in order to optimally meet current prices and demand. When supply exceeds demand, prices tend to drop – which may be good for consumers, but is disastrous for farmers. However, supply management can appear heavy-handed. For example, in BC it is essentially illegal to sell milk to anyone but the marketing board, and in order to do so, farmers must purchase “quota”. Farmers who have quota are allowed to produce and sell a certain amount of milk each year. But quota is not cheap, and it can be difficult to get more if a farmer wants to expand. If a farmer fails to fulfill his quota, or the product is outside requirements, he faces penalties.
There is among consumers a growing demand for raw milk, and toward that end cow share programs are popping up across North America. A group of people band together to buy dairy cows, hire someone to manage and milk the animals and then distribute the milk to the owners. This concept is not new, but the current interest in local ( and “safe” ) food has given it new life.
Paige Dampier and Allison Bennett are members of Home on the Range, a local cow share program. Bennett believes that access to raw milk is important for health reasons. “I started doing this when I stopped feeding my daughter breast milk and started her on cow’s milk,” she explains. “There were a few things that made me want to change [ to raw milk ]. One was the issue of antibiotics being transferred to the milk – things fed to the cows. There are also additives to the milk.”
“Pasteurized milk could be more allergenic – people are more likely to develop an allergic reaction to it.” Bennett adds. “I feel there are a lot of unknowns about Pasteurized milk, whereas people have been drinking raw milk for thousands of years. I don’t think there is a safety issue if the animals are healthy.”
Dampier wants to know where her milk is coming from. “With the cow share I can trace it back to its source. I used to go out once a week and milk the cows with Alice [ the manager ] and I could see first-hand the farm, the pastures they were on, the feed they were getting,” she explains. The close connection to the farmer and the animals addresses some of her larger concerns. “It’s about that whole culture of food, and how we are supporting the people who are producing it. The whole notion that food should be cheap on the backs of those that produce it really disturbs me – the social justice side is even more important than the health benefits.”
In 2009 the Fraser Health Authority and Coastal Health seized raw milk from a local cow share. Though the legal context for this was unclear, the health authorities deemed that the sale of raw milk constituted the distribution of a dangerous substance. This baffled the herd owners, who failed to see how drinking milk from their own cows endangered anyone. As Dampier says, “People are feeling affronted and confused: ‘why can’t I consume this product that is not hurting me or harming anyone else around me?’ ”
To add to the confusion, an Ontario Court reviewing a similar case ruled that there was no public health risk, as the milk was not sold or distributed to the public. In BC, cow share owners weren’t so fortunate. A judge sided with the Fraser Health Authority, saying that distribution of a dangerous substance was a public health threat, and ordered the farmer to cease and desist. Bennett is mystified by the response. “I’m very interested in why the government is going after raw milk when there are products like alcohol and tobacco out there,” she says. At the same time she doesn’t think that fighting in court is the best course of action. “What we want is to develop a model that is legal and acceptable in BC,” she says. “We’d like to see regulations drawn up that would allow for safe, clean raw milk to be sold and distributed and enjoyed.”
While there may be problems with the current system, it is clearly better than no system at all. Supply management has played a crucial role in stabilizing agricultural prices. In general, the sectors that have some form of supply management are more stable than those that don’t. Weakening our supply management system would put regional dairy farmers at risk. At the same time, consumers are actively seeking raw milk. What is frustrating to many is that the marketing board already tests milk from farms across the province, and is ultimately able to determine how much and what kinds of bacteria are present. It seems a short step to sell safe milk directly to consumers as another regulated product.
Michael Marrapese, based in the Fraser Valley, works with FarmFolkCityFolk to cultivate a local sustainable food system. www.farmfolkcityfolk.ca
edible magazine ALMOST SPRING EDITION 2011