Contraband Cheese

The journey between the states of Minas Gerais and São Paulo becomes considerably longer than it need be when the truck driver has to keep to dirt roads to avoid police checks. It’s night and, though they aren’t exactly toxic substances, the goods being smuggled are illegal.

Last year, the O Estado de Minas newspaper published a report on the route taken by raw-milk cheese from its place of production, the state of Minas Gerais, to the supermarkets and retailers of São Paulo. The “Canastra cheese smuggling” story could be the plot of surreal short story. It is actually the reality which many of Brazilian small-scale artisan raw-milk cheese makers are being forced to be part of.

A masterpiece
In 2008, IPHAN, the Institute for the national historic and artistic heritage, recognized the Minas cheese production protocol as part of Brazil’s immaterial cultural heritage. Yet for over 50 years anyone producing cheese has fallen victim to obsolete legislation that hinders the development and protection of the country’s dairy culture. The law states that to be sold in other Brazilian states raw-milk cheeses must be matured for at least 60 days. But it fails to take into account the Brazilian palate. According to the extension agency EMATER, almost 40 per cent of artisan cheese is sold illegally.

Supported by the current legislation, the ultra-hygienic, anti-raw milk cheese lobby is defending indiscriminate pasteurization. This procedure, adopted for the production of industrial cheeses, kills the pathogenic microorganisms that tend to proliferate in improper storage conditions or in milk from sick animals. But it also kills microorganisms beneficial for cheese and consumer health. Produced in good hygienic conditions with milk from healthy animals, raw milk cheeses are in no way a health risk. It is the microorganisms in raw milk that give artisan cheeses their typicality, flavor, texture and aroma.

Micro organisms and maxi interests
Geared to big business, legislation is out of touch with the small-scale producer. Besides fixing maturation periods, the law also demands that tables, molds and working surfaces be made from stainless steel as opposed to traditional wood. The cost of bringing a small dairy up to standard is estimated at 10-15,000 euros, too much for most small-scale producers. As well as the economic aspect, there is also a cultural one. Producers who have replaced their traditional equipment have found a significant change in the quality and flavor of their dairy products. The legal obstacle is forcing the country to repudiate an old dairy tradition. After all, historical documents testify that cheese was being made in the state of Pernambuco as far back as 1597.

The right to choose
Though the case of Minas cheese is emblematic, raw milk is used to make artisan cheeses all around the country: from Marajó Island, in the state of Pará, in the far north, where they make buffalo milk cheese, to the state of Rio Grande do Sul in the deep south, with its tradition of Queijo Colonial and Queijo Serrano.

By totally overlooking traditional wisdom, the legislation in force condemns an entire artisan-based gastronomic culture to death and unfairly forces small producers onto the informal market.

Unfortunately, it is not only in Brazil that the production and sale of raw milk cheeses are at risk. The same situation can be found in many countries around the world. In 2001 Slow Food launched a global campaign and a manifesto to draw attention to the issue and try to protect raw milk cheeses. The president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, Piero Sardo, believes that restricting the marketing of raw milk products is a political issue and that people should intervene to protect their right to choose their food.

Inspired by the manifesto, supporters of the Slow Food network in Brazil have created a work group to study and propose alternatives for small traditional raw milk cheese producers. As part of the project, national cheese production will be mapped. The group also attended the first seminar on artisan cheeses to be held in Brazil.

Brazil will be at Cheese in Bra, Italy 20-23 September! Three representatives from the Grupo de Trabalho Queijos Artesanais a Leite Cru (Working Group for Artisanal Raw Milk Cheeses) will be showcasing seven cheeses in the Ark of Taste space. On Sunday 22 September at 11.30 they will lead a conference and tasting on Brazilian artisan cheeses in the Biodiversity House (Casa della Biodiversità).

Find out more about the program at Cheese at

Slow Food has launched a “Slow Cheese” campaign to protect raw milk cheeses in Italy and round the world. To find out more visit

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