CHEESE 2001 – The fight to save raw milk cheeses in the USA

The Food and Drug Administration (a consumer protection agency that enforces US Federal Food and Drug laws and is part of the Department of Health and Human Services) is reviewing its policy that allows the use of unpasteurized milk in cheesemaking to determine whether the policy is adequate to protect public health. Mandatory pasteurization may be required as early as next year, when the FDA studies are completed. Small artisanal dairies that make raw milk cheeses in the US may have to close up shop or face considerable changes in the quality of their cheeses. Imports of raw milk cheeses from Europe may also be banned: Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano, French Roquefort, Swiss Gruyere, English farmhouse Cheddar and countless other cheeses may no longer be available in the American market.

Pasteurization is an easy way to increase the chances of producing a safe product, but to imply that it guarantees safety is to dumb down the message for the public. According to Dr. Paul Kindstedt, professor at the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Vermont, pasteurization, ‘simply reduces risk. A good argument can be made that safeguards other than pasteurization can be developed to achieve a comparable level of risk reduction. This approach is been taken by some European countries where there is a concerted effort to strike a workable balance between the public’s right to the highest level of food safety and a deep cultural appreciation of raw milk cheeses’.

Most European countries are fiercely protective of their culinary patrimony and have a Protected Designation of Origin for many of their cheeses. The European Union has adapted an American sanitation procedures called HACCP (Hazard Analysis critical control points) that stands as a comparable alternative to pasteurization.

Cheese has been made with raw milk for 3,000 years. It sustained our ancestors and shaped our Western diet.

We believe that raw milk cheeses are worth saving because:
A. They belong in the high end of the specialty market, thus providing a high return to the farmer and making it viable to sustain agriculture on a small farm.
B. There is a growing market in the US for raw milk cheeses. In recent years, the increased sophistication of the American consumer has called for a larger variety of unique, distinctive, hand-crafted cheeses. This has prompted specialty food stores and farmers markets throughout the country to expand their cheese offerings.
C. The range and depth of flavors that result from using raw milk in cheese making is, in most cases, unattainable with pasteurized milk.
D. American consumers want the choice. Clearly, they demand and are entitled to safe products. Informed correctly, we, the American public, should be able to eat what we want, because the freedom of choice is ingrained in the very fabric of our beings.

The American Cheese Society and Oldways Preservation Trust formed the Cheese of Choice Coalition in April 2000. Its aim is to unite organizations and individuals that will share information and resources, and concentrate the power to stand up to the international governmental organizations that want to prohibit the production of raw milk cheeses.

Daphne Zepos is a co-founder of the Cheese of Choice Coalition and board member of the American Cheese Society. Formerly cheese director for San Francisco’s Campton Place Restaurant, she works as a consultant to the California Milk Advisory Board and to Bay Area.

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