NEWMARKET, Ont. - Clutching a glass of raw milk, an emotional Michael Schmidt toasted what he called a victory for the local food movement Thursday after the Ontario dairy farmer was found not guilty of 19 charges related to selling unpasteurized milk.
"People need to learn how to stand up even when it seems it's impossible to achieve change in our interpretation of the law," said Schmidt, who was often depicted by supporters as the small farmer fighting for consumer food rights against an established milk industry.
In a legal battle that played out over three years, Schmidt fought to continue the operation of his 150-member raw milk co-operative in Durham, Ont., and defended himself against the charges for dispensing milk straight from the cow.
Schmidt was charged under the Health Protection and Promotion Act and the Milk Act after an armed raid by about two dozen officers and government officials at his farm in 2006.
While raw milk is legal to drink, it's illegal to sell in Canada. Officials consider it a health hazard.
Under Schmidt's cow-share program each member of his co-operative owns a part of the cow. By owning the cow members were drinking milk from their own animal, he says.
On Thursday, justice of the peace Paul Kowarsky ruled that Schmidt's method of distribution made the group exempt from the legislation. He also found the operation did not violate the province's milk-marketing or public-health regulations.
Kowarsky said the Crown could not prove that Schmidt had tried to market the milk. It was made clear on signs at the farm and at the blue bus where Schmidt set up shop at a Vaughan, Ont., market that only members could purchase products made from raw milk, he added.
"The undisputed evidence of the defendant is that there is no advertising or selling," said Kowarsky.
The legislation was originally created to protect the vulnerable, but the cow-share members were not vulnerable and were cognizant of all concerns associated with drinking unpasteurized milk, he added.
"They consume the milk at their own risk," said Kowarsky, adding the product had been thoroughly tested and was shown not to be contaminated.
At trial, food scientists and health experts testified that mandatory pasteurization laws are needed to protect public health.
Schmidt argued that government officials and food scientists could not guarantee the safety of any food, and suggested informed consumers should be able to buy raw milk if they want.
At the culmination of the detailed verdict, Kowarsky said the cow-share program was a "legitimate and lawful" enterprise and called the case part of a "search for contemporary justice."
A Ministry of Agriculture spokesman was not able to say if the ministry would be reviewing the Milk Act.
"We're disappointed in the court's ruling," said Brent Ross. "The government will review the court's decision and determine next steps."
Thrilled supporters, some wearing sweaters emblazoned on the back with "Team Raw Dairy," gasped and clapped as the justice of the peace handed down his verdict. The courtroom, packed with so many supporters that dozens were left standing, flocked to a teary-eyed Schmidt, as they flung their arms around him.
"He's giving us all a chance for the small farmer to enter into private contracts such as cow-share or farm-share agreements where we can decide what we buy, eat and how we behave," said a jubilant Judith McGill, a cow-share member who has helped rally support for Schmidt.
Outside of the court, two women poured and passed around creamy glasses of raw milk to people as children perched on signs reading "protect our food."
During the verdict, Kowarsky also acknowledged the growing trend towards the local food movement, and said he found many cow-share programs existed around the world.
This was a message not lost on Schmidt, who said the verdict had opened the door to new kind of conversation.
"It was never a war. It was a Shakespearean drama," Schmidt said coyly. "We tried to get into a dialogue."
Schmidt has not ruled out entering the political scene so he can push for the full legalization of raw milk.
"Like (former prime minister Pierre Elliot) Trudeau said, the government has no business in the bedroom of the people, and here I say the government has no business in the stomach of the people either."
For Allyson McMullen, Schmidt's win is also a win for consumer choice.
"It's so much more about milk. It's about food. It's about us having the choice to put what we want in our bodies and I think that this is incredible," she said.