About 80 people gathered outside the Hennepin County courthouse in Minneapolis on May 14 to show their support for Alvin Schlangen, a farmer from Freeport, Minnesota who faces trial on six counts of food safety violations, some of which stem from delivering raw milk to members of a food club.
Laws governing the sale of raw, or unpasteurized, milk vary from state to state. In Minnesota, farmers can sell raw milk to customers, but “only if the transaction takes place on the farm and only if the sales occur occasionally,” said Mike Schommer, Communications Director for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). Minnesota does not require farmers who sell raw milk directly to customers to have a permit and therefore does test raw milk sold in these situations for pathogens.
The charges against Schlangen, who is an organic egg farmer and does not produce raw milk on his farm, include one count of selling raw milk, another for distributing food without a food handler’s license and one count for failing to maintain temperature requirements. His trial, which was scheduled for 9 a.m. today was pushed back until tomorrow.
That was disappointing news for his supporters, who began arriving at the courthouse just before 7:oo this morning to rally and then stage a sit-in during his trial. On the grassy space outside the downtown courthouse, the crowd, which was almost entirely white, included mothers, babies, children and Amish farmers in wide-brimmed hats.
Some supporters jangled cow bells, others carried placards that read “Where R U Land of the Free,” “Alvin, Farmer, Choice” and “MDA Stole My Milk.” Small children raced a remote control car around that plaza that had beed equipped with flashing lights and an MDA sign while adults assembled a large “Declaration of Food Independence Sign” which rallyers were later invited to sign and toast with a pint of raw milk.
One speaker asked rallyers to lie down on the grass to show that they were willing to “lay down their lives” for the cause, as many in the crowd began to comply, the sprinklers, which had been running through their morning cycle, began to spray them. Ralleyers used their placards and a bucket to deflect the spray. Though most seemed to take the sprinkling in stride, it prompted one man in the crowd to wonder aloud about a conspiracy orchestrated by “Big Ag” and another to point a finger at the mayor of Minneapolis.
When asked why he was at the rally, the first man, a CPA from Stillwater, who declined to give his name, said the rally was about food freedom. When asked why he didn’t go to the farm to purchase the milk himself, he responded, “It’s three hours away.” When pressed further, he added. “I’d hate for you to say this was about convenience.”
Elisa Berry was a speaker at the rally and agreed to be interviewed. She said she was there to show support for her friend, Alvin and for the cause of food freedom. ”You’ve got to remember that our ancestors have been drinking this for thousands of years,” she said.”We’re trying to over-legislate some of these simple foods.” When asked about the dangers that pathogens in raw milk can pose, she responded, “Vegetables have a much higher rate of foodborne illlness than dairy,” which is true according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But also true, according to a February report by the CDC, is that raw milk causes foodborne illness outbreaks at a rate 150 times greater than pasteurized milk. And, according to the CDC and the Mayo Clinic, that young children are at the greatest risk for developing hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a condition that leads to kidney failure which most commonly develops after E. coli infection.
In a recent interview with Oregon Public Radio, the mother of a toddler who contracted and E.coli infection from raw mik and developed HUS, described the ordeal of a 28-day hospital stay during which her child suffered seizures and underwent surgery to have a portion of intestine removed.
When asked about this illness, one of 142 that have been caused by five raw milk outbreaks so far this year, Berry said the mother had her condolences but added that in many of these reports “not all of the information is given.” Berry said she plans to continue to give her children raw milk. “I am comfortable with the level of risk. It is a low risk.”