Risks and rewards of raw milk cheese

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March 22, 2011 - 7:00pm

Connoisseurs of raw milk cheese compare it to a single vineyard wine. They say it acquires terroir, a signature flavor drawn from the place it was made and the methods of the cheesemaker. But federal regulators say that because it's made from unpasteurized milk, raw milk cheese is a product that comes with a risk. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to soon revisit rules meant to ensure raw milk cheese is safe to eat.


Inside a walk-in, climate controlled cooler several rounds of Sonnenberg, Gouda, and Cheddar cheese are sparsely arranged on simple wood shelves. It's the cheese cave at Branched Oak Farm where Krista and Doug Dittman take milk from their herd of 50 pasture-raised, Jersey cows to make several varieties of pasteurized and unpasteurized cheese. Krista Dittman describes flavors that come out of a raw milk cheese that are lost in pasteurization.

"Good raw milk cheese has, really, a complexity of flavor. Nutty is one. Sometimes you get a little note of fruit in it. Some people say it tastes a little grassy, but that's a floral taste to me," Dittman said.

Raw milk is a product that raises red flags for food scientists and federal regulators. Bob Hutkins, a dairy microbiologist at the University of Nebraska Lincoln says consuming raw milk exposes people to a long list of possible contaminants.

"The issue with raw milk is a variety of pathogenic bacteria: Salmonella. Listeria monocytogenes. E. coli O157. Campylobacter. So there's actually a long list of bacteria that can get into raw milk and present public health problems," Hutkins said.

For more than 50 years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has required raw milk cheese be aged at least 60 days. The rule was based in the assumption that higher levels of acid and salt in the cheese, along with a lower water content, combine to destroy any threatening bacteria. But Hutkins said recent studies have shown that's not true.

"There've been studies that show that pathogens - E. coli, salmonella, staphylococcus - can survive the 60 days of aging," he said. "So it makes some sense but when you really test it out you find it's really arbitrary."

Beyond those studies, raw milk cheese has come under extra scrutiny following prominent recalls in 2010. In one case dozens of people were made sick by a raw milk Gouda produced in California and sold through Costco. Pasteurized cheeses are also subject to contamination and recall, but the FDA is currently working to take stock of the potential risks represented by raw milk cheese. The agency is looking more closely at safety measures being taken at raw milk cheese facilities and at research from the U.S. and abroad on the safety of the cheese.

Advocates of raw milk and raw milk cheese are closely monitoring the FDA's actions. Nora Weiser, Executive Director of the American Cheese Society which represents artisan cheese makers, says the FDA has been open to input from producers and is taking an appropriately scientific approach.

"They're approaching it from a very science based perspective, which we very much support," she said. "Cheese making is very much a melding of art and science."

Others are more apprehensive about what could come from the increased scrutiny. Pete Kennedy, President of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, suspects the FDA would like to put stronger limits in place. Instead of embracing artisan raw milk cheese, as has been the case in Europe, Kennedy believes the FDA is laying the groundwork for more stringent rules.

"You just have a mindset at this agency where the only good bacteria (sic) is a dead bacteria," Kennedy said. "And they're more interested in pasteurized sterilized food than a product like raw milk cheese which from what I've seen is experiencing a big increase in demand these days."

Hutkins said the European regulations rely on traditional recipes and cheese making methods that have proved safe over centuries of practice. But that kind of tradition has not existed in the U.S.

For their part, the Dittmans on Branched Oak Farm have taken safety precautions of their own. Inside the cheese cave, each wheel of Gouda or Cheddar is labeled so that any potential issues can be traced to the source. The FDA has not set a timetable for any changes, but Krista Dittman feels she can manage any new requirements. Her main concern is that consumers continue to have the opportunity to choose raw milk cheese if that is what they want.

Hutkins said he expects the FDA to make safety their top priorities in drafting the new rules, even if that means they will be difficult for small producers to follow.

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