A soft-spoken Minnesota farmer was cleared of violating state laws for distributing raw milk Thursday, a verdict advocates for such foods called their first major legal victory.

After a three-day trial and more than four hours of deliberation, a Hennepin County jury found Alvin Schlangen not guilty of three misdemeanor counts of selling unpasteurized milk, operating without a food license and handling adulterated or misbranded food.

The trial highlighted a deep national divide between raw milk advocates who contend unpasteurized dairy products can relieve allergies and prevent illness and public health officials who warn that raw milk can cause serious and sometimes fatal diseases, such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria.

"It's a big step in the right direction," Schlangen, 54, said Thursday, flanked by celebrating supporters. "I have a hard time understanding how this basic freedom has been so hard to maintain."

The raw milk debate emerged in Minnesota two years ago, when eight people were sickened by E. coli bacteria in raw milk that was linked to Minnesota producer Mike Hartmann. Hartmann faces similar charges as Schlangen did and is expected to be tried this fall. He also faces a lawsuit filed by the father of a boy who got sick from drinking raw milk.

Schlangen, an organic egg farmer from Freeport, Minn., doesn't produce milk himself but operates Freedom Farms Co-op, a private club with roughly 130 members who buy various farm products, including raw milk. Schlangen picks up the milk products from an Amish farm and delivers them to members.

He was charged in 2010 after Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) inspectors discovered his products at Traditional Foods, a south Minneapolis natural foods outlet. Under Minnesota law, milk that hasn't been pasteurized (heat-treated to kill harmful bacteria) can be sold only in limited amounts on the farm where it's produced. Schlangen, who testified on his own behalf, maintained that he was operating a private cooperative and not a business. He also noted that no one got sick from the milk he distributed.

Assistant Minneapolis City Attorney Michelle Doffing Baynes argued at trial that food safety laws are in place to protect consumers, but declined to comment after the verdict.

Schlangen's attorney, Nathan Hansen, said that while the acquittal does not set any legal precedent, "it's a huge victory for food freedom."

It also leaves him optimistic for a similar case against Schlangen in Stearns County, which is set for trial next month.

"I think the jury read the statute correctly," Hansen said. "The Department of Agriculture reads a lot of things into the statute that just aren't there."

In a statement, an Agriculture Department spokesman said, "We strongly disagree with this ruling," and added that the state provided sufficient evidence to show that Schlangen violated the law.

"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 statement said.

'Real food changed our lives'

Schlangen's supporters, who rallied outside the Hennepin County Government Center last spring, also supported him throughout the three-day trial. Natasha Simeon, a St. Paul mother of three, said she was there for Schlangen as a friend and a member of his cooperative.

"Real food has changed our lives," she said.

Simeon said raw milk was her "gateway drug" to nutritional foods. Her husband and two of her children were believed to be lactose intolerant until they began drinking raw milk, and their symptoms subsided. Without farmers like Schlangen, she said, her family would be unable to access such food. Simeon and her family lease a cow, and they want to be in compliance and don't want to break laws. But they still want direct access to their food.

"I don't think it's the government's place to tell me what I can and can't eat or feed my family," she said.

Schlangen said that while his club continues to run, its operation changes from day to day. He stressed that what he called a completely voluntary operation isn't economically viable and may change.

"If I had any business sense," he said, "I wouldn't have been doing this for 10 years."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921