Farmer acquitted in Minn. raw milk trial

Alvin Schlangen
Alvin Schlangen holds a gallon of milk from his delivery truck Thursday, May 10, 2012, near St. Cloud, Minn.
AP Photo/The St. Cloud Times, Dave Schwarz

Jurors on Thursday acquitted a Minnesota man accused of violating state laws by running a buying club that distributes raw milk from farmers to consumers.

The jury acquitted Alvin Schlangen on all three misdemeanor counts. Schlangen, an organic egg producer in central Minnesota, was accused of 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 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 case had gone to the three-man, three woman jury in Hennepin County District Court on Wednesday afternoon.

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.

A statement today from the MDA regarding the acquittal read, "This narrow ruling does not wipe away the fact that many children and adults have gotten dangerously sick from consuming raw milk. It also does not wipe away the other legal rulings that have upheld MDA enforcement actions. Protecting the integrity of our food supply remains our top priority, and Minnesotans expect us to do that job using modern science and the law as our guide."

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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.

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.

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 deal that would have required him to plead guilty to one count in exchange for a lesser sentence. The maximum penalties on each count he faced are 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

"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.