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FDA Reconsiders Raw Milk Cheese Rules

By August 18, 2016 Raw Milk No Comments
Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a raw milk cheese from Uplands Dairy.

Regulators Rethink Raw Milk Regulations

If you’ve attended our classes or talked with us in the shop, you know we are passionate about raw milk cheese.  It’s not that you can’t make good cheese with pasteurized milk.  You can.  What you can’t do, though, is make cheese that tastes of the place where it was made.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a raw milk cheese from Uplands Dairy.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a raw milk cheese from Uplands Dairy.

What do we mean by that?  Raw milk retains the natural bacteria local to the place where the cheese is made and that can create deeper and more complex flavors.  With raw milk cheese, you taste the breed, the pasture the animals grazed – mountains, hills, valleys, plains – and the season, young spring grass, rich summer grass.  In other words, you get a taste of place and time.

When you pasteurize milk, you strips a lot of those complex flavors out and effectively creates “dead milk.”  To rebuild flavor in pasteurized cheeses, cheesemakers must re-introduce bacteria through the form of starter cultures.  These are pre-selected strains of bacteria made in a laboratory and available in powder form.

But that means cheesemakers across the country are using the same selected bacteria and potentially producing cheeses lacking character and diversity; cheeses that are identical from Japan to Australia to Sweden.

In fact, one of the reasons that cheesemakers starting using pasteurized milk was to create cheese that was more consistent in texture and flavor regardless of the time of year or what milk went into the mix.  Think commodity cheese.

In fact, traditionally, cheese was always made with raw milk.  It’s only in the last century that cheesemakers started pasteurizing the milk.  In fact, the reason cheese was “invented” was as a way to preserve raw milk before refrigeration.

Will the 60-Day Rule Fall?

We’re so passionate about raw milk cheese, that even though we are a small, startup shop, we are Colorado’s only member of the Oldways Cheese Coalition, an organization dedicated to preserving the raw milk cheese tradition.

In recent years, raw milk cheese has been under scrutiny by the FDA.  Current law allows cheesemakers to sell raw milk cheese as long as it’s been aged at least 60 days.  That’s one reason we can’t get those amazing French Bries and Camemberts that you may have tasted overseas.  They can’t age 60 days and ship to the U.S. and still be at their peak.

Many have argued that the existing laws are outdated and harken back to a time when sanitation and farm conditions were quite different than what is the norm today.   So it was significant when the FDA came to the American Cheese Society meeting last month and announced possible changes in the regulatory landscape for raw milk cheese.

One of our favorite cheese bloggers, Janet Fletcher, wrote a great summary of the latest news.  As she quotes:

The 60-day rule is “not efficacious,” said Dr. Nega Beru, head of FDA’s Office of Food Safety, in a presentation to the American Cheese Society conference last month. “We are looking for alternative measures to control pathogens.”

Simultaneously, the FDA released of the results of a two-year, extensive testing initiative that involved collecting more than 1,600 samples of aged raw-milk cheese, domestic and imported, and testing them for pathogens.  Their findings: instances of contamination were “similar to the contamination rates in many other foods,” including pasteurized cheese.

Here is Janet’s full blog post.  What comes next remains to be seen, but for raw milk cheese lovers, this is good news indeed.