Photo: kaight_ashbury, Flickr
Are raw-milk cheeses healthful? Recent findings of Listeria monocytogenes, the bacteria that causes Listeria, in cheeses from Montesano, Washington's Estrella Family Creamery in Missouri's Morningland Dairy unequivocally suggest the contrary. Both dairies, which were inspected by FDA (Food and Drug Administration) officials within the past few months, are going to have a particularly hard time defending their raw-milk cheeses, especially since it's just the latest raw-milk scare. Just last week, health officials found 25 E. coli O157:H7 infections linked to Bravo Farms' raw-milk Gouda being sold at Costco stores in Colorado.
When it comes to raw-milk, the conflict between cheesemakers and the FDA is not new. Many cheesemakers view the FDA as an organization of government officials with little or no experience on dairies. Sunday, the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project released a series of cheesemakers' reactions to the recent recalls of raw-milk cheese. One of them states, anonymously, of course, "I am concerned about any potential surprise investigations, because the investigators usually don't have any experience with farms at all," the cheesemaker told the Cheese Project. "The ones who recently visited here had never even been on a farm before; not a good thing in my opinion." Apart from revealing the incompetence of the FDA, their anonymous responses indicate that the health risks do not involve raw-milk, on its own.
"It is definitely possible to make [raw-milk cheese] safely, but you need very good controls all the way through the process," says another anonymous cheesemaker. "I think you would need to have your own milk supply and the raw-milk supply must be of top quality." Unfortunately, the FDA is not offering any advice as to how the cheesemaking process needs to be perfected.
Clearly, raw-milk cheeses are not inherently dangerous. Otherwise, most French people, who eat raw-milk cheeses on a regular basis, would be suffering from Listeria. The dangers have to do with its handling -- leaving it out in the wrong temperature and being handled by too many people in different environments. Even the FDA is starting to question the law that states that raw-milk cheeses must be aged over 60 days in order to be sold, legally. "In fact, scientists have since shown that some pathogens -- strains of Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli -- can survive in cheese beyond 60 days," says Janet Fletcher. Fletcher suggests that the FDA may be going after the wrong ingredient: "One recent study of European washed-rind cheeses found almost twice as much Listeria in the pasteurized samples than in the raw-milk samples."
The ACS (the American Cheese Society) informed us that they will release a statement about safe cheesemaking in the next day or so. Instead of focusing on raw-milk and the 60 day rule, the FDA should come up with clear guidelines for cheese handling and find a way to enforce them. After all, those of us who relish the taste of Vacherin Mont d'Or or Brie de Meaux, couldn't imagine a world without raw-milk.
Cheese enthusiasts have long lauded the benefits of raw-milk, from its rich, complex and creamier taste to its healthful enzymes. This past June, the FDA raided Venice, California, grocery store Rawsome Foods and found illegal cheeses from Morningland Dairy. (Check out Stephen Colbert's hilarious parody of the raid.) Hopefully, the recent health problems involving raw-milk cheeses from Morningland Dairy, Estrella Family Creamery and Bravo Farms will persuade health officials to reexamine the causes of harmful bacteria so that we can reap the same culinary benefits that the French have been enjoying for centuries.