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food fight

Raw milk continues to flow from a Chilliwack dairy even after a B.C. Supreme Court decision in March which ordered the Home on the Range farm to stop distributing the product for human consumption.

Raw milk is a health hazard, wrote B.C Supreme Court Justice Miriam Gropper in the decision. When coupled with B.C.'s Public Health Act, which "prohibits a person from willingly causing a health hazard," Home on the Range is ignoring the court's decision with ongoing distribution, said provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall.

"People continue to want to take risks," he said.

But Alice Jongerden, who is paid by nearly 400 individuals and families to manage a 21-cow herd, said Home on the Range is working within the law and following the order.

When people pick up the milk, she gives them a letter outlining the risks of consuming raw milk, including the fact that the Fraser Health Authority deems raw milk a health hazard. She recommends other uses for the unpasteurized milk, such as milk baths. And each jar of milk bears a label stating "Not for human consumption."

"The order is that we have to cease and desist distributing raw milk for human consumption, so I have informed them that it is not for human consumption. But ultimately it's their private property. What they do with it is entirely up to them," said Ms. Jongerden, who grew up on a conventional dairy farm in Ontario.

Once the milk passes hands, her job is over. "It's not me knowingly causing a health hazard any more," said the married mother of five children.

For now, the Fraser Health Authority plans to enforce B.C.'s Public Health Act, which states that distribution of raw milk is illegal, said spokesperson Joan Marshall, but she couldn't confirm the method of enforcement.

Mr. Kendall also isn't sure what the Ministry of Health will do.

"It's a really interesting conundrum. We really need some time to discuss how to proceed. You can't stop adults from doing what they want to do," he said, adding his greater concern is that children will consume the milk, something he's strongly against. Unpasteurized milk can be contaminated with pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter and brucella, all of which can be fatal to children and those with weak immune systems.

Ms. Jongerden isn't worried about anyone becoming sick from her milk. "We do the very best that we possibly can," she said.

Those who pay her for the milk and to look after the cows, which are tested annually for various pathogens, can visit the farm any time, she added.

In January, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control advised that unpasteurized dairy products from Home on the Range should be disposed of because five samples gathered from the farm tested positive for fecal contamination.

The contamination may have been a result of changing the cows' bedding from sand to sawdust, Ms. Jongerden said. But she believes that the milk may have been stored at a temperature that was too high to produce accurate results.

"I would never say people don't get sick from raw milk. They do," said Gordon Watson, one of Home on the Range's founders. "We emphasize raw milk, properly handled."

Mr. Watson, a Burnaby resident, helped Ms. Jongerden establish Home on the Range three years ago, when her Jersey cow was producing more milk than the family could consume.

Customers paid Ms. Jongerden to manage and milk the herd as a way to get around the ban on selling the raw product. The cost is $17.50 per week to receive a gallon of milk, or $9.50 for half a gallon.

"We could be like everybody else out there that has the coward view and be under the table, shush shush about it. But that wasn't right for us … We wanted to be open and honest about it," Ms. Jongerden said.

She said her view is that raw milk is a pure form of God-given food, and business – via pasteurization – changes what's pure. There have been times she's wanted to stop the dairy, but her strong faith kept her going.

Now she's preparing to appeal last month's court decision.

"As soon as I put raw milk in a jar, I am now packaging it. If I bring it to my family, I'm distributing it to my family and, if they drink it and somebody were to get sick, I could be charged with knowingly causing a health hazard," she said. "Obviously it needs to be appealed. To say raw milk is a health hazard, then anything can be."

B.C.'s raw milk crusade will be fought to the last drop, promises Mr. Watson, who plans to also make an appeal by the April 19 deadline.

More than half of U.S. states allow distribution of raw milk under a regulated system. But recalls of contaminated raw milk from certified dairy farms still occur. In February, milk from a Washington state-regulated raw milk dairy was recalled after tests determined it was contaminated with E. coli bacteria. On March 28, a regulated Pennsylvania raw milk dairy had its milk recalled after campylobacter bacteria was found.