A Renfrew County dairy farmer known for advocating for the distribution and consumption of unpasteurized milk is shutting down his farm operation. It is legal to drink raw milk in Ontario — and surveys say about 80 per cent of dairy farmers do. But it is illegal to sell or distribute it, which is exactly what he was doing for about 60 customers, including a number in the Ottawa area. At one point, Michael Ilgert sold about 300 litres of raw milk per week to 60 families for $3 per litre. But last year, the Renfrew County Health Unit charged him with delivering, distributing, offering for sale, and selling raw milk. It also charged him for failing to cease and desist.
Ilgert’s raw milk operation, which he shut down this month after pleading guilty to three provincial offences and agreeing to $1,500 in fines.
For Ilgert, a main focus of the issue is choice. Ilgert and others say consumers should be permitted the choice, making their own decisions about the health risks and benefits involved in drinking unprocessed milk, as they do in dozens of American states.
Consumers can knowingly go into a convenience store and purchase cigarettes, which are a known carcinogen, he said. But consumers aren’t given the chance to purchase the milk they prefer.
“The hypocrisy is that it’s legal for consumers to drink all the raw milk they want but they can’t buy it anywhere legally in Canada,” Ilgert told Farms.com today. “Consumers should have the freedom of choice of what they want to put into their bodies.”
Customer Jean Simon Bédard, 25, a software developer, drank Ilgert’s raw milk for about two years to cope with ulcerative colitis. He said the terrible side effects of pasteurized milk — “like dumping a sandbag in my arteries” — stopped immediately and described the raw version as “tastier.”
“I wish we would put more resources into figuring out what the deal is with raw milk. I know I’m not the only one who has no (allergic) reaction to it.”
Ilgert started small in 2010. A farm kid, he grew up drinking raw milk and started to produce enough for himself and sharing the excess from a single cow with friends and neighbours. Then word spread.
Before long, he was listed on a U.S. real milk website and calls started coming in from Ottawa. At his peak, he was producing about 300 litres a week from five or six cows.
The milk came straight from the animal, was filtered through a cloth, then poured into one-litre jars that were refrigerated. He would make regular runs to drop-off points in Ottawa, selling the milk for about $3 a litre.
His customers fell into three categories, he said: those allergic to pasteurized milk, immigrants accustomed to raw milk in their homelands, and “foodies” who are keen on organic, locally-produced foods that don’t come from a factory.
Raw milk has had a lively legal history in Ontario over the past 25 years, largely focused on Michael Schmidt, the southern Ontario farmer who has had many court battles over pasteurization.
Ilgert has taken workshops at the Schmidt farm and both were using a novel approach to get around provincial laws by exploiting an apparent loophole. They sold shares in the cows, thus making customers part-owners of the animals and a kind of long-distance farmer engaged in a co-op.
Ilgert operated on that basis, selling shares, even hosting his own website. It caught the attention of the Renfrew County health unit, which eventually sent inspectors over to have a look. Some raw milk was bought “under cover” and the farmer was slapped with five charges in 2017.
He was fighting those charges when, in January, a ruling from Ontario Superior Court Justice Phillip Sutherland in Newmarket threw out the “cow-share” defence as a way to legally distribute raw milk.
Ilgert was worried he was risking jail time, raids or seizures from health unit inspectors. So he stopped production and settled an outstanding case by pleading guilty to three charges.
So now the cows have gone dry and Ilgert is working on Plan B, which is to lobby for a change in the Health Protection and Promotion Act. He’s already been in touch with policy advisers to Attorney General Yasir Naqvi.
There is no guarantee, he points out, that mass produced food is safer. He says more people have died from contaminated romaine lettuce than from raw milk in the past 45 years. “Why are we being targeted?” Ilgert estimates there’s about 50 raw milk producers in Ontario, but he and Schmidt were targeted because of their openness on the subject. “We decided to speak out on the issue,” he said. “Maybe the other (raw milk producers) are in hiding because they don’t want health units going after them as well.”