The raw milk cheese debate that has recently head-butted its way into the national news and food blogosphere spotlights a battle that has raged for years between raw-milk cheese makers and food safety czars.
That clash has entered a new phase since last year, when creameries that make raw-milk cheeses were found to have traces of bacteria called listeria monocytogenes that can cause serious foodborne illness in their production facilities and in a few cases in the cheese itself. Inspections are on the rise, and the Food and Drug Administration is expected to propose new cheese-making rules in coming months.
How this turns out is the No. 1 concern of the community that I belong to: Vermont farmstead creameries that make and age raw-milk cheeses. Vermonters and all U.S. cheese makers have abruptly wakened to the realization that we must develop rigorous food-safety protocols as well as police ourselves with utmost vigilance. If we don’t, an entire farmstead industry will bite the dust.
Almost all milk is required to be pasteurized, which means heating it to 145 degrees for 30 minutes to kill bacteria. But under federal health rules, cheeses can be made from unpasteurized milk if they are aged for a minimum of 60 days in rooms that are 50 degrees and 85 percent humidity. The 60-day rule, dating from the late 1940s, stemmed from a belief that the drying process, plus the acids and salt in cheese, eventually kills any bacteria. Recent studies, however, have shown listeria monocytogenes and E. coli can survive in cheese beyond 60 days.
The FDA is reportedly eyeing two options: Lengthen the 60-day rule to 90 or 120 days. Or, require pasteurization of all milk used in cheese. Both of these are bad for cheese-making. More critically, neither will solve the bacteria problem the FDA professes to be concerned about.
These bacteria exist in the natural environment — but they don’t occur naturally in an animal’s milk. Unwashed human hands and dirty milking equipment are generally the culprits, introducing bacteria into the animal’s udder or directly into a cheese vat filled with fresh, clean milk.
A more effective way to address food safety
The solution is food safety vigilance in each and every creamery. At my farm, for instance, each animal’s milk is tested regularly for somatic cell counts that could indicate the presence of bacteria. Milk from animals with high levels is further tested. Before each cheese is made, the milk is again tested, this time for the presence of antibiotics, which could indicate an unhealthy animal somewhere in the milk line. All test results are analyzed carefully to make sure that nothing scary ends up in the cheese. All responsible dairy farmers and cheese makers must conduct regular testing as part of the daily regimen.
In addition, at least half of a cheese makers’ day should be spent cleaning, washing with water above 120 degrees, scouring, rinsing with an acid, and sanitizing all floors, surfaces and equipment. Hand washing is required before entering the cheese making and ripening rooms; street clothes and shoes shouldn’t be allowed in there at all. We must put public health concerns first in order to ensure the continued production of raw-milk cheeses.
In Vermont, which boasts one of the highest concentrations of American farmstead cheese-making creameries, we have additional reasons to worry. For years, the state has marketed itself as a mecca for those seeking wholesome cheeses and dairy products. Not just our products, but also a certain amount of tourism, depends on this industry.
To the north, we had a lesson in how bad it can get. In 2008, listeria monocytogenes was found in a major cheese shop in Quebec province. The government ordered the destruction of every piece of cut cheese in every store in the province on the theory that a knife could have spread the bacteria from one wheel to another. All creameries’ cheeses were held in quarantine for one month until government officials found the culprit (which they did). The cheese economy froze. The bad publicity was disastrous. Millions of dollars were lost.
Out of that, though, the government, the makers and the mongers all formulated a new system of licensing and education. Those wishing to introduce their cheese into the food economy would have to present a professional business plan and take a 50-hour course before obtaining a license. The inspectors, too, had to become specialists in cheese safety, not just general food safety.
Positive steps are already being taken in Vermont. Our state inspectors visit once a month to take milk and water samples and four times a year to do a thorough inspection. They’re not out to shut us down, but to keep us in business through strict policing. The nationally known Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese offers courses on quality and chemistry of milk, hygiene and food safety. At a recent annual meeting of the Vermont Cheese Council, the group embraced the notion of helping all members develop Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plans, which identify the points in which pathogen-entry is high, and map out monitoring, corrective action and record-keeping.
Now is the time for farmstead and artisan cheese makers across the country to band together to establish uniform protocols for cleanliness and testing. We must produce cheeses that are delicious — and healthful — if we want to keep America at the vanguard of a raw-milk artisan cheese revolution.
Angela Miller is the author of “Hay Fever: How Chasing a Dream on a Vermont Farm Changed my Life,” and co-owner of Consider Bardwell Farm in West Pawlet, Vt.
Photo: Angela Miller. Credit: Craig Jordan