Throughout evolutionary history, the omnivorous human species has been guided almost entirely by experience and consequence in deciding on possible foods. One negative consequence of eating widely is that we risk stumbling upon something toxic.

Millions of years of this kind of food testing has undoubtedly left us pretty anxious eaters. Today, we look to the processes of civilization to provide us with a modicum of power over the natural world. We rest assured that our Ministry of Health will tell us what is safe to eat.

In November of 2006, police raided Michael Schmidt‘s organic dairy farm outside Toronto, seizing equipment and interrupting his daily route to urban consumers of unpasteurized milk. The Canadian government treats unpasteurized, or raw, milk as an illegal substance because they consider it too risky to regulate — it may contain harmful bacteria along with the beneficial bacteria and micronutrients its proponents seek.

The Schmidt story has been reported as an issue of public health and safety. But seeing this as an isolated case of food risk and regulatory response would be limited.

Just recently we heard news of an Albertan bull sick with BSE and months previous a spate of E.coli sickness from bagged spinach. In fact, food scares are occurring with such regularity that they leave many consumers wondering whether their food is safe to eat regardless of its legality.

The truth is, problems like this are an inherent part of the global industrial food system where the maximization of profits is the main goal. BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) is perhaps the most visible human health consequence of industrial production.

BSE became widespread in the UK as a result of feeding dead animals to live ones who are really meant to eat only plants. This was considered an efficiency that allowed large operations to increase profits by saving on animal feed until it ended in the mass slaughter of 175,000 mad cattle and many cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

When crop and livestock production is carried out on a scale that suits the global market, operations grow more of the same thing (called a monoculture) and large numbers of animals are kept in tight quarters. Under these conditions, the potential for disease outbreaks is high. A recent study by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention shows that outbreaks of food-related illnesses are a direct result of industrial methods of farming.

Farmers are encouraged by agribusinesses and farm agencies to ameliorate these risks by using dangerous chemicals and expensive technological solutions but these don’t seem to work. A recent U.S. study reported that one in five samples of supermarket beef and poultry were contaminated with salmonella, and last year alone Canada reported over 50,000 cases of food poisoning.

The famous writer on risk, Ulrich Beck, says that nature has boomerang qualities: that it will always revolt against the pressures of industrial capital no matter how carefully we regulate the food system through strict national standards based on current science.

But there is another way to manage the inherent risks associated with ingestion and that is by eating responsibly — taking responsibility for the food you eat and giving its producer the opportunity to be a responsible member of your eating experience.

The consumer of locally produced food tries to eat in full consciousness as Michael Pollan famously calls it. She knows the conditions of its production, she knows how far it travelled to get to her and therefore how fresh it is, and she likely has a relationship of trust and accountability with its producer.

Michael Schmidt’s consumers are willing to accept any natural risks associated with the consumption of raw milk largely because at arm’s reach he is under incredible pressure to keep his operation clean. Schmidt boasts a long spotless record.

The raw milk consumers aren’t an isolated bunch — there is a groundswell of support for local systems where consumers and farmers are cooperating to promote smaller-scale, more diversified and environmentally sound agriculture. It’s to be hoped it won’t be long until government policies — which continue to favour global trade and the industrialized mode of food production that it necessitates — start to reflect our desire for a system that would be healthier not only for consumers but also for farmers, other animals and the environment.