No More Raw Milk Cheese in America?

Ah, the joy of cheese.  As anyone who has visited France can attest, one of it’s great pleasures is the unmatched selection of cheeses.  A walk though even the most modest Paris fromagerie is a study in mixed emotions:  I am off my head at the thought of this wonderfully varied selection at my disposal, and sad to think that I will never be able to enjoy most of them in the U.S. after my visit is over.  The creamy fresh cheeses, the huge variety of oddly shaped goat’s milk cheeses, in fact any raw milk cheese aged less than 60 days, you will never find these here in the U.S.  Although raw milk is not a guarantee of a great cheese, many of the best cheeses I have tasted are made with raw milk.  Now you will know what is going through my head if you come across me standing outside my favorite fromagerie on the rue Saint-Antoine taking in the smell and looking wistful.

On the bright side, we now can find a large number of raw milk, artisan cheeses made in America.  I have been buying and using them in my restaurants for years.  It is exciting to see new producers springing up each year and existing producers making better and better cheeses.  Some of my favorites American producers are Quillisascut Farms (now known also for their Farm School, their  cheeses are uniformly very good);  Mount Townsend Creamery (their Trailhead Tome is very nice and a real bargain);  and Winchester Cheese Company (the Super Aged Gouda is fantastic).

Unfortunately, the use of raw milk for making cheese has been in the news recently for the wrong reasons.  As described in a New York Times article by William Neuman, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently completed a study on the aging of raw milk cheeses, the results of which are contained in a report that is undergoing internal review before release.  While it is not known exactly what recommendations this report will make,  many cheese makers and importers fear that it may recommend new limits on raw milk cheese, including both those made in America and  those that are imported.

The question of raw-milk in cheese making has always been a sticky one as this article points out .  Raw milk can contain many types of bacteriological flora, some of it beneficial to humans and some harmful.  Many artisan cheese makers claim that beneficial flora in raw milk greatly add to the quality of cheese made from it, giving distinctive flavors and aromas in the same way that different vineyards impart complexity on carefully made wine.  In general, the the question of harmful bacteria in milk has been addressed through pasteurization, or heating the milk to a temperature that kills all bacteria, both beneficial and harmful (note that there is an underground network of raw milk believers in America who claim that pasteurization of milk is to blame for a whole myriad of childhood maladies, but that is a whole different story)

Cheese is generally more acidic than milk, due to the curdling process, and also it often has added salt.  This acidity and saltiness make cheese a fairly inhospitable environment for bacteria.  So the thought was that even if one had concerns about bacteria in milk, once you turn this milk into cheese and let is sit for a while, the chances of the cheese still containing harmful bacteria would be much less.  All this was noted by American food regulators in the 1940’s when they developed a rule requiring that cheeses made from raw milk be aged at least 60 days.  Current laws also ban the importation to the U.S. of raw milk cheeses that don’t meet the 60 day aging requirement.

The problem with the 60 day rule is that when it was developed, the vast majority of cheeses being produced in America were Cheddars or Cheddar-style.  Cheddar cheese is a relatively low moisture cheese and it is almost never surface ripened (meaning that cheese makers do not encourage the growth of bacteria on the surface of the cheese during aging ) or made with a washed rind (a rind that is rubbed with alcohol or brine during aging to encourage the development of a pungent, strong flavor).  In general, the 60 day rule works well to ensure any harmful bacteria present in the raw milk will be gone before it is eaten, as long as the cheese you are talking about is Cheddar-style.  However, recent research indicates that this is not necessarily true for higher moisture content cheeses, and cheeses that have been surface ripened or have a washed rind.  For these cheeses, studies show that even after 60 days of aging, harmful bacteria may still be present.

Since many of the cheeses being made by artisan cheese makers today have higher moister content, are surface ripened or have a washed rind, the 60 day rule would seem to be inadequate.  Therefore, some fear that the FDA may extend the aging period to 90 days or ban outright the use of raw milk in certain kinds of cheese (and by extension, impose these same rules on imported cheeses).  Cheese makers are fearful of either choice;  a 90 aging rule would for all practical purposes be a ban on certain sorts of soft ripened cheeses that are typically eaten much younger;  and a growing number of cheese makers feel that raw milk is vital to the quality of their cheeses.

There are several problems with the whole logic underlying the 60 day aging rule.  First and foremost is the assumption that milk is all full of harmful bacteria and therefore must be either pasteurized or aged as cheese to make it safe to consume.  As I said before, raw-milk can contain harmful bacteria  but not all raw milk does.  Pasteurization was developed to address the rise in industrial dairy farming that produces milk of questionably quality and purity.  I certainly would not want to drink raw milk from a huge industrial dairy where the animals spend all day standing in their own feces.  On the other hand, milk from a small, responsibly run dairy, where small herds are carefully raised and milked, this is a different thing altogether.

The other problem with the 60 day rule is that harmful bacteria can get into cheese though contamination after the cheese is made, during aging, packaging or handling.  This sort of contamination can occur in cheeses made from raw-milk or pasteurized milk and no aging rule, whether it be 60 days or 90 days, will solve the problem.  Only strict hygiene and sanitation practices and routine inspections to ensure these practices, like those required in restaurants, can  ensure safe cheese.

I think that what is really needed is not a ban on raw milk cheeses or a longer aging period, but a better system of inspection to insure that all cheeses are safe.  In Europe, where raw-milk cheeses (including fresh cheeses that are not aged) are a cherished tradition,  routine inspection is required for both the milk used in cheese making and for the finished cheeses.  This is true of cheeses made with raw and pasteurized milk. Why couldn’t we do the same here?

If small cheese makers can demonstrate that their raw milk and cheese are free from harmful bacterias, through high standards of sanitation and hygiene, and testing of both milk used and the cheese, why force them to follow rules designed for industrial dairies and cheese producers?  A lowest common denominator approach to regulating cheese making just doesn’t make sense.  And it certainly doesn’t make for good cheese.


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