Cows, raw milk and marketing boards

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.

published in

edible magazine ALMOST SPRING EDITION 2011



Filed under News

7 responses to “Cows, raw milk and marketing boards

  1. Gordon S Watson

    each edition of Edible magazine is a work of art
    this article is helpful, overall. But I disagree with the proposition that “Supply management has played a crucial role in stabilizing agricultural prices.” The milk marketing system in Canada is Stalin-ism, writ large … a centrally-dictated command economy, now in dis-integrating as its inherent contradictions reach their limits.
    its main fault being = that the stuff on retail shelves branded “homo milk” is quite different than what milk was, back in 1955, when the quota system started. Then… the milk was produced by cows out on grass, picked up in small batches to be packaged locally and distributed within hours to consumers close by. Today … the stuff is pooled from thousands of cows, many with sub-clinical mastitis … fractionated in a processing plant akin to an oil refinery, stripped of the most valuable parts ( fats) then re-constituted and adulterated with Milk Protein Concentrate imported from God-only-knows-where. Often shipped hundreds or even thousands of miles, to sit on store shelves up to 30 days.
    The cartoon on the package of “homo milk” – of cows grazing happily in a sunny meadow – is nothing less than consumer fraud

    • thebovine

      As the British example shows, raw milk is not incompatible with supply management. In fact the whole pro and con supply management discussion is a whole other issue. Although it intersects in that dairy supply management advocates see the growth of raw milk as a threat to their hegemony.

    • Adrien Lapointe

      I guess the supply management succeeds in keeping price fairly stable. However, I am not sure it is the best tool for farmers to cover their costs. It seems that with the price of quotas nowadays, unless you are already established it is pretty hard to be profitable even with a stable milk price. It seems to me that quotas are more like some farmers’ investments for retirement. But this is just my point of view as a city dweler with interest in food and farming.

  2. thebovine

    What’s valuable here is that the raw milk story is spread to presumably a wider audience through stories like this. It would have been nice though if the author had probed a little deeper into the story of the child supposedly made sick by raw milk, and clarified the legal implications and history of raw milk being declared a health hazard in B.C.

  3. Pingback: Michael Schmidt raw milk stories over the past month on the Bovine | The Bovine

  4. Noriko

    I welcome the article. The article is in Edible Vancouver, whose readers are not necessarily in the raw milk circle. This is one of the first article raising awareness of the issue to general foodies, and I think it is still valuable. The whole issue to progress forward, we need everyone coming together to a table. We need to re-build a community and I believe the community should be inclusive. I am not in the position to judge others’ position in their context. Reality is not sole black and white. It takes time to build a strong community, just as it is to raise anything real. There is no instant solution, but gradual progress and we are at the beginning of the long journey.

  5. Kurtis

    It will put raw milk outside the range of anyone to afford it at over $30,000.00 per cow to BUY the right to milk them. Then add in facilities cost etc … So the current system is not a viable one. Private agreement is still the best method and the only real sustainable one for small agriculture.

    On the more insidious side of the equation:

    Where the REAL MONEY comes in is if you happen to be the individual or individuals who manage to usher in the NEW raw milk board and marketing body. Don’t think for one minute there aren’t those out there who know this and are willing to promote making a deal with government to set such up and help administer it in the name of PROTECTING raw milk availability. This is how our dairies where sold out once in the past and we are coming dangerously close to going down that road again.

    There are no easy answers out their and a lot of very hard questions yet to be asked and hope the answers absolutely factual and without hidden agenda.

    Guidelines and not regulation. Honesty and integrity on the part of the producer and investigation on the part of the INFORMED consumer negates the need for governance. This is the system we need to develop in the long run in order to keep food choices a reality and real farms alive.

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