Refuse to Eat Plastic Cheese: The Battle for Raw Milk

Slow Food has been fighting for the rights of consumers to buy raw milk and the rights of cheesemakers to make cheese from raw milk for almost two decades, and its biennial event, Cheese, has long been a forum for publicizing the issue. A new Slow Food campaign site for raw milk,, was launched at Cheese 2011, and on Sunday September 17 an international panel of speakers talked about raw milk in their home countries.

Michèle Mesmain of Slow Food International presented the website, which will be available in five languages and includes sections on health risks and benefits, local campaigns, “Raw Milk Heroes,” legislation, education and animal welfare. Italian researcher Roberto Rubino talked about the importance of maintaining the biodiversity of milk, which naturally contains many dozens of strains of positive bacteria.

One of the countries with the strictest legislation against raw milk is Australia, which produces 12 percent of the world’s cheese. Exporting, producing and selling raw-milk cheeses, with a very few exceptions, is illegal. “We’ve been fighting for change since 1996 and the government hasn’t really listened at all,” said cheese expert Will Studd. “They just announced last week that they’re recommending no major change to the current situation.” He said the sale of raw milk would become a criminal offense. “Our example might be followed in the USA, perhaps in Europe. It is worth fighting for the right to a choice.”

The situation for raw-milk cheesemakers in the United States is indeed precarious, as cheesemaker Mateo Kehler explained. “The Food and Drug Administration is proposing doing a risk assessment which will lead to changes in the next 12 to 18 months.” Currently cheeses can be made from raw milk if they are aged for at least 60 days, but that could change. However, he was generally optimistic. “There’s a revolution happening outside the control of the government. People are voting with their forks and making choices about how they want to feed themselves and their families.” He concluded: “If it’s possible to sell sushi and oysters, it should be possible to sell safe raw milk.”

Elisabeth Ryan coordinates a campaign in Ireland against proposed changes to the law that would make it illegal to sell liquid raw milk. She said the Irish authorities wanted an international image of Ireland as a safe food country. “This ‘sterilization’ of food trumps quality,” she said. “We need to find a way to convince the government that we can minimize the risks relating to raw milk. It’s estimated that 100,000 people in Ireland consume raw milk and we’ve only had two cases of illness from raw milk in the last ten years.”

Ryan works for Sheridans Cheesemongers, and one of its founders, Seamus Sheridan, also gave his perspective. “Here in the Langhe you produce beautiful wine. I don’t think it should be pasteurized. In Ireland we produce the most beautiful milk in the world and I believe that farmers should have the right to sell it safely however they want,” he said. “We must fight for the biodiversity of our farmers, foods and agriculture and for pleasure and taste.”

From the Netherlands, Marjolein Kooistra, the Aged Artisanal Gouda Presidium coordinator and a member of the Ark of Taste national commission, described a different situation. The sale of raw milk was not a big legal issue in her country, she said, but the main problem raw-milk cheesemakers faced was cheeses made with thermized milk (submitted to a process similar to pasteurization but that uses lower temperatures) being sold as raw milk.

Piero Sardo, president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, brought the discussion to a close with some final words. He blamed industrial dairy producers for imposing pasteurization and lobbying against raw milk. “We had 10,000 years of raw-milk cheese before Pasteur, and we’re still here. Europe hasn’t been stricken by epidemics,” he said, before rallying the audience to support the fight: “We’re the only ones who can stand up against this. They can’t force us to eat sterile food, but nobody is going to defend us. We have to do it ourselves, by choosing, protesting, organizing events, campaigning and refusing to eat plastic cheeses.”

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