MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- A Hennepin County courtroom is a long way from the dairy herds of central Minnesota. But it's there where the issue of food safety hangs in the balance with consumers rights. Specifically, it's about farmer's right to sell raw milk to members of a co-op or "private" food club.
"This isn't a corporation. This isn't a business. This is a private agreement among select private individuals who choose to have one person go to one farm to get milk," said defense attorney, Nathan Hansen.
Hansen represents the Freeport, Minn. organic egg farmer who is charged in the case. Alvin Schlangen is facing three misdemeanor charges for violating the state's food safety code. The code basically allows consumers to only purchase unpasteurized milk directly from a farmer. The law does not allow any organized distribution of the milk by a third party.
That's what the Minneapolis city attorney contends Schlangen was doing when he was cited in 2010 for distributing raw milk to Twin Cities customers.
Schlangen contends that the customers were actually members of his private food club. Members believe there are medicinal and nutritional attributes in raw milk that are destroyed by the heat pasteurization process.
"I think one of our basic freedoms is the right to choose our own food," said Schlangen.
The Stearns county organic farmer argues that his co-op is a private collection of members who are interested in nutrient-dense and organically grown foods free of additives and processing. Schlangen said their choice of consuming raw milk shouldn't fall under the state's food safety code.
"I think the biggest issue right now is public awareness of this idea that we can't decide what food is good for our family," Schlangen said.
The misdemeanor case is attracting a lot of interest, particularly among natural and organic foods advocates. Terry Flower flew in from the New Hampshire just to attend the trial.
"If this is happening in Minnesota, it could be happening in New Hampshire and that's important," said Flower.
For nearly a century, heat pasteurization of dairy has been used to kill harmful bacteria, such as e-coli, listeria and salmonella pathogens. Now, a Hennepin County jury will soon decide if consumers can choose between risk and what some see as a greater nutritional reward.
"I think they (consumers) should be aware of the inherent risks," said University of Minnesota Veterinary Public Health professor, Jeff Bender. "The process of pasteurization is really a tried and tested technique. Its impact on the milk itself is actually very minimal,"
The 6-person jury was selected Monday and testimony is underway. Schlangen will take the stand in his own defense.
The misdemeanor trial is expected to last just a few days.
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