MINNEAPOLIS — A Minnesota man accused of violating the state's raw milk laws was just the middle man in a voluntary arrangement of people sharing food, his attorney argued Wednesday.
Alvin Schlangen, an organic egg producer in central Minnesota, is charged with three misdemeanor counts including distributing unpasteurized milk, operating without a food handler's license and handling adulterated food. Minnesota law prohibits raw milk sales except directly to consumers on the farm when it's produced.
A Hennepin County jury began deliberating the case Wednesday. After nearly an hour and a half, jurors recessed for the day and were scheduled to resume deliberations Thursday morning.
Schlangen, of Freeport, contends he doesn't sell milk, but merely operates a private buying club that distributes raw milk to members, mostly in the Twin Cities. He says all he does is deliver the end product to members who lease the cows from Amish farmers.
The state Agriculture Department says Minnesota's restrictions on raw milk sales are necessary to protect the public from serious diseases.
The case highlights a deep national divide between raw milk and free choice advocates — who contend it provides important health benefits to their families, such as relief from allergies and prevention of various illnesses— and officials who say unpasteurized milk can carry dangerous pathogens that cause serious and sometimes fatal diseases, such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria.
In closing arguments Wednesday, defense attorney Nathan Hansen told the six-member jury that Schlangen's operation is not a business and is not illegal.
"We have a voluntary association of people who come together to share food with each other," Hansen said.
Hansen called the interpretation of the law given by the agriculture department and police officials who testified "absurd." He said their testimony indicated they believe people who buy raw milk at a farm can serve it only to themselves, not to their families. And he said the prosecution overstated the health risks.
"There's no testimony here that anybody has gotten sick out of this voluntary association," Hansen said. He also said Schlangen doesn't need a food handler's license.
Prosecutor Michelle Doffing-Baynes urged the jurors to uphold the law.
"The state is requesting a verdict of guilty on all counts," Doffing-Baynes said. The maximum penalties on each count are up to 90 days in jail and/or up to a $1,000 fine.
Schlangen has been backed by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. By its count, retail sales of raw milk are legal in 10 states, while farm sales are legal in 15, including Minnesota. Cow-share or herd-share programs, similar to Schlangen's club, are allowed in some states but are a legal gray area in others, according to the group.
Raw milk advocates say pasteurization destroys important nutrients, enzymes and beneficial bacterial. They blame pasteurization for contributing to allergies, tooth decay, colic and growth problems in young children, and osteoporosis, arthritis, heart disease and cancer in adults — claims disputed by many food scientists and public health officials.
Heidi Kassenborg, director of the dairy and food inspection division at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press that the best science indicates that raw milk is not safe in any form.
She said Minnesota's law limiting sales to on-the-farm balances that concern against individual rights. The idea is to prevent "impulse buys" by people who haven't had the opportunity to research the risks, she said.
"Just from a practical standpoint, milk and manure are produced on the same end of the cow, so despite people's best intentions or efforts, contamination will occur," Kassenborg said.
Pasteurization uses heat to kill microorganisms that get into the milk before it's packaged. States that allow raw milk sales, such as California, often see disease outbreaks, she said.
"Right now, the dangers of drinking raw milk greatly outweigh the benefits," Kassenborg said. "It's not about the milk, it's the pathogens."