History of Raw Milk Laws in Canada
Humans have been consuming natural, unprocessed dairy for thousands of years. Dairy pasteurization (heating milk to kill bacteria) is relatively new. It was a response to urbanization in the 1800s when large numbers of people moved into cities. This movement created the challenge of feeding large, dense, urban populations in a way that was safe, economical, and efficient.
To bring milk to urban consumers, dairies were moved nearer, or even into, quickly expanding cities. As a result, cows were often kept in crowded and unsanitary conditions, without access to the sunlight and grass they required to be healthy. This led to tuberculosis and other illnesses, both in cattle and the people who consumed their milk. In addition, without refrigeration it was impossible to keep milk at a temperature that would prevent bacterial growth.
In Canada, like in many other urbanizing countries, pasteurization was brought in to address this food safety issue. Only a few countries made it illegal to obtain unprocessed dairy, however; Canada being one of them.
International Laws Regarding Access to Raw Milk
Most of the world has never prohibited the sale of unpasteurized fluid milk (“raw milk”). Some industrialized countries first prohibited raw milk, but later liberalized these laws in response to new information about health benefits, cleaner production practices, and increased consumer demand. As of 2021, Canada is one of only a handful of countries that still has an outright ban on the distribution of raw milk. Other countries include Norway, Scotland, Singapore and Australia. Together with Canada, these countries have a combined population of 75 million in a world of almost 8 billion—that’s 1%!
Each U.S. state independently regulates raw milk, with laws ranging from an outright ban (New Jersey) to legal retail sales in 12 states including California, which has a larger population than Canada. Twenty-seven percent (27%) of the U.S. population can buy raw milk in grocery stores and another 48% can obtain it directly from farms. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not banned raw milk; however, in 1987 it prohibited interstate sale.
Canadian Laws Regarding Access to Raw Milk
In 1991, after consultation with the Dairy Farmers of Canada and without considering alternative approaches (e.g. farmer training and bacteria testing standards), the federal government amended the Food and Drug Regulations under the Food and Drugs Act to add the following:
No person shall sell the normal lacteal secretion obtained from the mammary gland of the cow, genus Bos, or of any other animal, or sell a dairy product made with any such secretion, unless the secretion or dairy product has been pasteurized by being held at a temperature and for a period that ensure the reduction of the alkaline phosphatase activity so as to meet the tolerances specified in official method MFO-3, Determination of Phosphatase Activity in Dairy Products, dated November 30, 1981. (Section B.08.002.2 (1))
The Food and Drugs Act itself defines the word “sell” to include: “offer for sale, expose for sale or have in possession for sale—or distribute to one or more persons, whether or not the distribution is made for consideration.” This definition even prohibits herdshares (e.g. cowshares, goatshares, and sheepshares) where consumers co-own dairy livestock, an approach which is legal in most U.S. states where sales are prohibited (2017 letter from Health Canada).
Since agriculture is mainly regulated by the provinces, each also has its own laws requiring pasteurization. Provincial laws are both inconsistent and harsh. For example, Ontario farmers may legally drink milk from their own dairy livestock, but only on the farm. Taking a bottle of milk to a family member off-farm is illegal and subject to a $2,000 per day fine for processing (bottling) and distributing. British Columbia has the draconian punishment of a fine of up to $3,000,000 or three years in prison for anyone—farmer or consumer—who “packages and/or distributes” raw milk. In 2008, Quebec passed a law legalizing the production and distribution of unpasteurized cheese aged less than 60 days. This conflicts with federal regulation. This Quebec law has not been challenged by Health Canada, even though it is against federal law.
Currently, raw milk operates in a “black market” in Canada. Because it is illegal, it is unregulated and unstudied. Like the cannabis market before legalization, millions in tax dollars continue to be wasted on enforcement and legal challenges. The “criminals” in these cases are generally small family farms which take great pride in the quality of their fresh, unprocessed milk sold to willing and happy consumers.
How We Can Change the Laws:
For many years, citizens have been asking health agencies to reconsider their ban on raw dairy based on the current science of its health and safety. Letters from citizens, a federal petition read in Parliament, and inquiries from elected officials have all met with the same answer: It’s too dangerous based on evidence of outbreaks in other jurisdictions.
Are they missing the fact that, by keeping this underground, the health of Canadians is at a higher risk than if it were legal and regulated?
We need to demand that our elected and unelected officials update our laws. Two things you can do to help us achieve our goal:
- Join CADA as a General Member (it’s free!) — and let your demand for legal, safe access be counted.
- Educate your MP and ask them for support! We’ll work with you.
The more members (voices) we have, the harder we will be to ignore! Once we can show meaningful support, we will contact Health Canada and the Minister of Health to present our data and request that they update our laws! Next, we will do the same with their provincial counterparts.