A soft-spoken Minnesota farmer was cleared of violating state laws for distributing raw milk Thursday, a verdict advocates for such foods called their first major legal victory.
After a three-day trial and more than four hours of deliberation, a Hennepin County jury found Alvin Schlangen not guilty of three misdemeanor counts of selling unpasteurized milk, operating without a food license and handling adulterated or misbranded food.
The trial highlighted a deep national divide between raw milk advocates who contend unpasteurized dairy products can relieve allergies and prevent illness and public health officials who warn that raw milk can cause serious and sometimes fatal diseases, such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria.
“It’s a big step in the right direction,” Schlangen, 54, said Thursday, flanked by celebrating supporters. “I have a hard time understanding how this basic freedom has been so hard to maintain.”
The raw milk debate emerged in Minnesota two years ago, when eight people were sickened by E. coli bacteria in raw milk that was linked to Minnesota producer Mike Hartmann. Hartmann faces similar charges as Schlangen did and is expected to be tried this fall. He also faces a lawsuit filed by the father of a boy who got sick from drinking raw milk.
Schlangen, an organic egg farmer from Freeport, Minn., doesn’t produce milk himself but operates Freedom Farms Co-op, a private club with roughly 130 members who buy various farm products, including raw milk. Schlangen picks up the milk products from an Amish farm and delivers them to members.
He was charged in 2010 after Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) inspectors discovered his products at Traditional Foods, a south Minneapolis natural foods outlet. Under Minnesota law, milk that hasn’t been pasteurized (heat-treated to kill harmful bacteria) can be sold only in limited amounts on the farm where it’s produced. Schlangen, who testified on his own behalf, maintained that he was operating a private cooperative and not a business. He also noted that no one got sick from the milk he distribute