WDAY: The News Leader

Published September 20, 2012, 08:48 AM

Deliberations resume in Minn. raw milk trial

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Jurors reconvened Thursday to decide whether a Minnesota man violated state laws by running a buying club that distributes raw milk from farmers to consumers.

By: STEVE KARNOWSKI,Associated Press, Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Jurors reconvened Thursday to decide whether a Minnesota man violated state laws by running a buying club that distributes raw milk from farmers to consumers.

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.

The case went to the three-man, three woman jury in Hennepin County District Court on Wednesday afternoon.

The Freeport man, his attorney and his supporters argue that Schlangen's club is not a business, but a voluntary and legal association of consumers who lease cows from Amish farmers. They say Schlangen is merely a middleman who delivers the milk, mostly to members in the Twin Cities.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture says the state's restrictions on raw milk sales protect the public from deadly diseases such as E. coli, salmonella, listeria and campylobacter.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said raw milk products were responsible for at least 93 disease outbreaks from 1998-2009, causing 1,837 illnesses, 195 hospitalizations, and two deaths. The CDC says foodborne illnesses often go unreported, so the actual number of illnesses from raw milk is probably higher.

The maximum penalties on each count are up to 90 days in jail and/or up to a $1,000 fine.

Raw milk consumers and government regulators disagree on whether it's a healthy or a dangerous product. Raw milk supporters 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. Public health officials dispute the scientific validity of those claims.

A sizable portion of the Schlangen supporters who filled the small courtroom for his trial were mothers with young children in tow, from toddlers who were still nursing up to kids around age 7. They said Judge Robert Small commented at one point on how well-behaved the children were. One person piped up that it was because they drink raw milk.

Susie Zahratka, 34, of Lauderdale, a self-described citizen lobbyist with the natural foods movement who's been active on Schlangen's behalf, brought her two children, 5-year-old Ethan and 2½-year-old Gabby on Wednesday. She said she buys their raw milk directly from a farmer, and her experience is that consumers who drink it are making well-informed choices after doing a lot of research — "more informed than going to a grocery store," she said.

Among other mothers at Wednesday's closing arguments was Alyson Jeseritz, 30, of Inver Grove Heights, accompanied by her sons, 4-year-old Johnathan and 6-year-old Ben. She said she's too busy to go to a farm herself to buy raw milk for them.

"It's insane, all the rigmarole you have to go through," Jeseritz said as her boys played on the floor outside the courtroom with the other children. She said her sons are healthier because they drink draw milk, and they're healthier than her two stepdaughters, who get raw milk only when they visit on weekends.

"They do not have allergies. They do not have skin issues. None of that. And I believe part of that is what they eat and how they're fed," Jerseritz said.

Terry Flower, 62, flew in to watch the trial from Manchester, N.H., where retail raw milk sales are legal.

"I am very passionate about the fact that we need to be able to choose our own food. In New Hampshire we can do that," Flower said.

In an interview while the jury was out, Schlangen, 54, said he expected the buying club to keep operating even if he was convicted. He said it's a volunteer-run organization.

Schlangen also said he rejected the prosecution's offer of a plea agreement that would have required him to plead guilty to one count in exchange for a lesser sentence. He said he didn't even remember what the sentencing officer was.

"This is all or nothing. Our objective is freedom to choose our food," he said.

According to the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, 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, which have some similarities to Schlangen's club, are allowed in some states, according to the group.