MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Minnesota man charged with violating the state’s restrictions on raw milk sales was acquitted Thursday in what he and his supporters called a victory for consumer freedom.

Alvin Schlangen, an organic egg producer from central Minnesota, was charged with three misdemeanor counts 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.

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The three-man, three-woman jury deliberated for about 4 ½ hours before returning not guilty verdicts on all three counts in Hennepin County District Court.

“This is a huge victory for food freedom,” said Schlangen’s attorney, Nathan Hansen, who told the jury in closing arguments Wednesday that Schlangen did nothing illegal.

Raw milk consumers and government regulators disagree sharply on whether unpasteurized milk is a healthy food with significant benefits for their families or a dangerous product that can cause serious and potentially deadly diseases such as E. coli, salmonella, listeria and campylobacter.

Schlangen, 54, said he was prepared for the decision to go either way “just because the system doesn’t let the jury realize they have the power to disregard a stupid law.”

The Freeport man does not produce milk but runs what the defense described as a voluntary and legal association of consumers who lease cows from Amish farmers. The defense said his role is merely as a middleman, delivering the milk to members who live mostly in the Twin Cities. He said he expects the club to keep operating for now, though members are trying to spread out the work, and he’s not sure it’s economically viable in the long term because it requires so much effort.

Schlangen said his victory gives him optimism for his next legal fight. He faces similar charges in Stearns County, where he’s due to stand trial Oct. 9.

“I think it’s a huge step in the right direction,” he said of his acquittal, “but I have a hard time understanding why this basic freedom was so hard to maintain, or bring back, because it was lost,” he said.

Prosecutor Michelle Doffing-Baynes declined to comment on the verdict.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture officials issued a statement saying the jury made a “narrow finding” on whether enough evidence existed to prove Schlangen broke the law.

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“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,” the department said.

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. 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 Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund says 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.

Schlangen’s passionate supporters filled the small courtroom for his trial, including a sizable contingent of mothers with young children in tow. 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, was pleased with Schlangen’s acquittal but said it won’t make it any easier for her to buy raw milk for her children, 5-year-old Ethan and 2½-year-old Gabby, because she purchases it directly from a farmer. She said 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.

Alyson Jeseritz, 30, of Inver Grove Heights, attended the trial with her sons, 4-year-old Johnathan and 6-year-old Ben. She said she’s too busy to go to a farm herself.

“It’s insane, all the rigmarole you have to go through,” said Jeseritz, who believes her sons are healthier because they drink draw milk.

Terry Flower, 62, flew in from Mancheter, N.H., where retail sales are legal. Flower said it was well worth the trip to see Schlangen acquitted.

“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.

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