Some Like it Raw: The State of Unpasteurized Cheese in the U.S.

Ever wonder why some cheese tastes so much better in Europe? The view of the Eiffel Tower helps, but a lot of the time, it’s because fromage from across the pond is made from unpasteurized milk—milk straight from the animal, unheated before consumption. Europeans use this “raw milk” as the main ingredient to make much of their fresh soft cheeses, a practice forbidden in the U.S. But that may soon change.

In America, by law, all cheese regulated by the FDA (that is, all cheese that is transported across state lines) must either be made from pasteurized (heated) milk or aged at least 60 days. The rule has been in place since 1949, and much has changed about the diary industry since then—both increased production and the rise of artisanal, smaller-batch or handmade cheeses.

Funny that French scientist Louis Pasteur discovered heating liquid to a certain temperature destroys pathogens, because 150 years later, the French are still enjoying unpasteurized fresh cheeses, while pasteurization has become a battlefield for Americans.

Some consider raw-milk restrictions throwing the baby Gouda out with the bathwater in the name of public health, because they consider both the taste and the health benefits of raw milk to be vastly superior to pasteurized. Heating kills the harmful disease-causing bacteria—but also possibly harms the helpful, gut-beneficial bacteria that has been linked to improving everything from obesity to depression.

The FDA wants to know what the public, particularly your average cheesemaker, thinks. It started a formal comment period in July, requesting information about how cheesemakers work, because the FDA is considering changing the raw-milk-cheese rules based on a joint study it did with Canada that “raises questions about the safety of cheese manufactured from unpasteurized milk, even when aged.”

In other words, maybe no more unpasteurized-milk cheese. Or maybe far less. Or maybe older (90 or 120 days). Or maybe new regulations requiring cheesemakers to adopt stricter practices.

“I applaud the FDA’s work in ensure our food is safe,” says Mike Koch, Executive Director of FreshFarm Markets in Washington, D.C. and an artisanal family-farm cheesemaker whose FireFly Farms products boast wide distribution from Whole Foods to Sweetgreen to a Major League Baseball stadium. “For generations, aged raw-milk cheeses have been safely enjoyed throughout much of the world. Ensuring American artisan cheeses are clearly labeled ensures American consumers can make their own cheese choices.”

The FDA had reasoned for 60 years that 60 days of aging a cheese is enough time to kill harmful pathogens that may linger from unpasteurized milk, so aged raw-milk cheeses are safe. But in recent decades, some dairy advocates and cheesemakers have fought to make raw milk and its cheeses more available because they believe it has a higher nutritional value and better taste. Some consumers have gone to great lengths to get raw milk—cow shares, hiring farmer “drivers,” and shopping at pet stores for raw milk….you know, “for their dogs.” (Raw milk is legal for animal consumption.)

Disease-causing pathogens enter milk through poor farm sanitation or fermentation, lack of temperature control, or because the animals are sick. A properly run farm, raw-milk advocates argue, will have milk that is safe to drink right out of the cow, goat, or sheep.

The FDA, in its introduction, acknowledges this, along with the wide variance in milking and cheesemaking styles—there are factory farms where cows are milked constantly, causing sores and illness, and there are farms where the animals are milked on a rotational cycle. Whether the cheese is safe depends largely on where the milk comes from, and the cheesemaker’s practices.

So some ask: Why not regulate the dairy industry to ensure quality milk, and the cheesemaking industry with stricter practices, rather than regulating raw milk—what humans have consumed for millennia—out of existence? And that may be what the FDA ends up doing. “The FDA recognizes that there is a broad diversity in cheese manufacturing operations and approaches and that many factors go into ensuring the safety of food,” it notes in its call for comments.

But writing regulations of the industry would be a whole lot more complicated than just banning raw-milk cheese altogether. So suggestions and data during the comments period—now—are critical.

And in case there was any doubt that food affects international relations, the European Union expressed its concern during a 2013 comment period, because the great majority of European cheeses are raw-milk cheeses. “Whatever decision not in line with science…could lead to unjustified trade disruption,” the EU wrote.

The comment period is open through November 3.

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