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Michael Schmidt won a three-year legal fight to operate a cow-share operation on Thursday. The arrangement allows members to buy shares in a cow in exchange for raw milk.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail


Chewing a hay lunch, Svetlana, Viola and Leah display a bored calm in their wide, brown eyes. Their glazed looks belie the burgeoning legal war over the product of their udders.

These unassuming dairy cattle have become symbols of a growing international food rights movement fuelled by mistrust of the industrial food system.

A Newmarket justice of the peace is scheduled to decide today whether raw (unpasteurized) milk produced by the cows - heritage Canadiennes bred near the town of Durham, Ont., by activist farmer Michael Schmidt - can legally be distributed to the small network of consumers who have bought "cow shares" from Mr. Schmidt in exchange for access to the animals' unprocessed milk.

Although it is not illegal to consume raw milk in Canada, selling or distributing violates laws that require pasteurization of most commercial milk products.

The Schmidt case, which began when his farm was raided in 2006, has captivated food rights academics and advocates in Canada and around the world who argue the court's decision will ripple well beyond the raw milk community. At its crux, they argue, the case is really about the extent to which consumers should be free to buy foods, however rarefied, and whether constitutional rights stretch as far as the grocery basket, farmer's market and the people who own shares in - but do not live on - food producing farms.

"This is not just about raw milk, this is about people's rights to choose whatever foods they want. I advocate for choice," said Joseph Heckman, an organic farming expert at Rutger's University in New Jersey who has consumed raw milk since childhood and now studies it.

Farm families have for decades consumed the fruits - and liquids - of their labour, including livestock butchered on the farm and milk straight from the cow. But demand for raw milk off the farm has grown significantly in recent years with concerns over processed and mass-produced foods.

That upward trend set off alarms for health officials. Many have attempted to block farmers from distributing raw milk, which has a higher risk than pasteurized products of carrying harmful pathogens, including listeria, salmonella, campylobacter and E.coli 0157.

Earlier this month, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control issued a warning about fecal contamination in raw milk products stemming from an ongoing investigation into Chilliwack's Home on the Range dairy, one of seven raw milk producers in that province.

Still, chefs, urban food culturists and people with health problems have been turning to farmers for quality, farm-fresh foods, including milk.

"Raw milk consumers, they are very dedicated. They have read up on the topic. It's a deliberate and thoughtful choice," said Prof. Heckman.

Consumers who seek raw milk accept the higher risk for contracting illness, and seek to minimize it by getting to know the inner workings of the farms. Many drive for hours, learn about the farm operation and pitch in. They often provide financial support to the farm and are willing to pay well above market price.

And while scientists debate the impact of processing and pasteurization on the nutritional aspects of milk, people who believe in the homeopathic nature and higher nutrient value of the raw version aren't going away, advocates say.

"My personal belief is that I should be able to eat whatever I want to. I am responsible enough to accept the consequences," said Tamas Acs, a Toronto-based life coach and trainer who owns a cow share at Mr. Schmidt's farm.

"This isn't a fad," Mr. Schmidt said in an interview at his farm this week. He believes that if regulators continue to prosecute raw milk farmers rather than allow regulated sales of raw milk, the health risks will intensify.

"They're pushing it underground. It's a black market out there," he said, adding that he is concerned irresponsible farmers will "feed on the raw milk frenzy" and sell products without the proper production safeguards.

Mr. Schimdt, who expects his case will escalate into a constitutional challenge, is adamant that he is not calling for an end to pasteurization. In an ideal world, he said, regulators would work with him and the dozen or so other raw milk farmers in Ontario to establish "common sense guidelines" to make raw milk production safer.

In 10 U.S. states, licensed farmers can sell raw milk with a warning label at grocery stores. Other parts of the country have cow-share or farm-share programs.

Prof. Heckman is advocating for more widespread compromise.

"When it's really high quality raw milk, meaning it's tested, the animals are healthy and it's produced under good sanitation, the incidence of sickness is pretty rare," he said. "It not zero. But there's no food that's perfectly safe."