Milk quality becomes issue in 1899 court case

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

During the period from 1890 to the First World War, the making of cheese for export was a major industry in Ontario.

There were two principal areas: Hastings County, north of Belleville, and a larger one that included Oxford, Waterloo and Perth Counties. The latter spilled into Wellington County, in Minto, Peel and Maryborough Townships.

The main cheese making plants in Wellington County were at Rothsay, Goldstone and Cotswold. There were others, perhaps another four or five, of lesser importance. Some of those plants were operated as cooperatives, and others by a local entrepreneur or group of investors.

Most of the product was sold to exporters based in Toronto and Montreal.

The plants operated only in summer, from the time the dairy herds went onto pasture in the spring until they returned to their winter quarters. Each factory hired a cheese maker. Their abilities and experience varied greatly. Buyers were careful to sample and compare the products of the dozens of planters in the industry. Prices varied according to their preferences. Ideally, they wanted as much consistency as possible for their European customers.

Each factory employed men with wagons to collect the milk from the supplying farms. The range typically was five or six miles from the plant, and in hot weather the collections were made daily. The average number of suppliers for a cheese factory was 40 or 50, though this varied considerably. For most farmers dairying was a sideline. The fresh milk industry was then in its infancy. Most consumers did not trust milk as a food, believing it to carry disease. In those days, before refrigeration and pasteurization, that was a wise conclusion. Consequently, most milk was used to make butter or supply a cheese factory.

Initially, there was a system of inspection, but that was performed by the Western Dairymen’s Association. Naturally, cheese makers wanted a high butterfat content, and milk that was free of bacteria and contaminants that might upset the processing of milk at the plant.

In September of 1899, the cheese maker at Cotswold, between Teviotdale and Harriston, experienced problems. He called in the district inspector, Archibald Smith. On Oct. 2 Smith arrived and made a series of inspections and tests of the milk as it came in from 46 suppliers. He was unhappy with the results of milk from a couple of suppliers. He believed it had been skimmed of butterfat, and was unhappy with the level of bacteria and other organisms.

The worst results came from milk supplied by Peter Johnston of Minto Township. Not only was his milk contaminated with organisms and foreign matter, the butterfat tested at 2.9 per cent. Most of the milk from other suppliers tested 4% or better.

That night Smith sent two assistants to the Johnston farm to witness the evening milking and inspect the facilities in the milking parlour. Johnston protested; he said that the evening milking was the product of only nine cows. The morning milking, tested by Smith at the factory, had been from ten cows.

The assistants returned with their sample, and Smith found a much cleaner product than he had tested from the morning milking at the Johnston farm. It also tested at 4.3% butterfat. He acknowledged that it was the average of nine rather than ten cows, but could not believe that a single cow would make such a difference.

Inspector Smith at once went to Harriston and laid charges against Peter Johnston for supplying deteriorated milk contrary to provincial statutes. The charges came before the local magistrates at Harriston. They agreed at once that Inspector Smith’s conclusions were sound, based on the evidence he supplied. They fined Johnston $10 and costs, or 21 days in jail.

Though the fine was not a large one, Johnston had no intention of paying. The cost to him could be great in the long run if he was banned from supplying milk to the Cotswold plant. He discussed the matter with lawyer A.G. Campbell of Harriston, and then appealed the conviction.

By then the case had aroused much interest in north Wellington, especially amongst farmers supplying cheese factories. Judge Chadwick heard the appeal at Guelph Quarter Sessions in mid December. A.G. Campbell retained Guelph lawyer Hugh Guthrie to argue the case and bring his legal talents to his challenge of Johnston’s conviction.

Judge Chadwick heard the evidence of some 15 witnesses. The defence strategy devised by Guthrie was twofold. Firstly, Johnston claimed there was frost on the morning when the initial sample of his milk was taken. The frost had set the cream at the top of the cans, he argued, and the shaking in the wagon had distributed it unevenly through the cans. The screen at the cheese factory had caught the cream in clots, preventing it from going through the strainer, and therefore lowering the butterfat content. Secondly was the matter of the different samples: 10 cows in the morning and nine in the evening.

Either of those factors, and perhaps both, Guthrie argued, could account for the vast difference in the butterfat content of the two samples.

Judge Chadwick found that argument persuasive. He quashed the conviction, and ordered Inspector Smith, by now sputtering in fury, to pay all the costs of the legal action.

Though Peter Johnston ultimately won, based on sharp legal argument, the case had a chastening effect on other suppliers to local cheese factories.

Nevertheless, consistency of quality was the biggest challenge for Ontario cheese in the early years of the 20th century. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the English and European markets were cut off. That doomed the majority of the small cheese factories. When the industry recovered in the 1920s the advantage was with larger operators whose products were predictable from one batch to the next. The domestic Canadian market soon outstripped export demand, as Holland and Denmark moved forward to dominate the European markets.

Each of the old cheese factories in Wellington has a unique history. Some also produced butter at various times, and especially after export demand disappeared. A few survived into the 1920s. But those are stories for another time.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Jan. 5,  2007.

Thorning Revisited