Contempt case for Ont. farmer who provided raw milk demands trial: judge

(Associated Press Canada)

 

A contempt of court case against an Ontario farmer accused of selling raw milk is too serious to deal with without a trial, a judge ruled Thursday.

 

Instead, Superior Court Justice Michael Brown rejected a request from the municipality of York Region to find Michael Schmidt in contempt and put the case over for a three-day trial in September, when the court can hear from witnesses.

 

"One of the sanctions you are seeking is that this man be jailed," Brown told Dan Kuzmyk, the lawyer for the municipality.

 

"I would be hard-pressed under these circumstances to prevent him from calling evidence."

 

The region maintains that Schmidt, of Durham, Ont., is in contempt because he has refused to obey a court order that he comply with a May 2007 directive from public health authorities to refrain from selling unpasteurized milk.

 

Schmidt still faces a trial in January related to an armed raid on his farm in November 2006 when health officials seized his milking equipment.

 

The raid and charges against him have opened an emotional debate, with supporters touting the health and taste benefits of unpasteurized milk, and public health officials arguing the danger of E. coli or other poisoning from raw milk is real.

 

"This is an important issue for the future of choice in food," said Richard Chomko, of Richmond Hill, Ont.

 

With about 50 of his supporters in the courtroom - many wearing "freedom of choice" buttons - Schmidt, of Durham, Ont., told the judge he was "appalled" the regional municipality was pressing the contempt case now.

 

Kuzmyk attempted to persuade the judge to move on the contempt matter, saying no trial was needed.

 

"We have incontrovertible evidence," Kuzmyk insisted. "We have photographs."

 

Brown refused to bite, saying Schmidt should have the right to challenge the evidence at trial.

 

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Outside court, Kuzmyk said the farmer was "thumbing his nose" at health-unit and court orders - behaviour that constituted a threat to the "very fabric" of a democratic society.

 

Schmidt called the ruling a "big victory," saying he was glad the judge understood the issues at stake.

 

While selling raw milk is illegal in Ontario, it is not illegal to drink it if you own the cow and many farmers do.

 

As a result, Schmidt has sold part ownership in the animals - "cow shares," as they're known in some circles - and argues he is selling milking and distribution services, not the milk itself, to people who otherwise would have no access to a cow.

 

"People can make a choice for themselves," Schmidt said as he stood in front of the blue converted "raw milk" bus that delivers the milk and other organic produce to the Toronto area.

 

Toronto mother Shirley Ann Wood said it would be "devastating" and "very sad" if Schmidt ended up in jail but said the raw-milk "movement" would persist. 7-31-08

 

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