Cheese made with raw-milk has been drawing the wrong kind of attention lately. This past week, at least 25 E. coli O157:H7 infections in the Southwest have been linked to Bravo Farms Dutch Style Gouda cheese. Previously, the ongoing debate concerning raw-milk and raw dairy products had been stoked once again following a listeria incident at Estrella cheese in Washington state. Lynne Terry of the Oregonian contributed a more in depth look at some of the public health, regulatory, culinary, and economic issues involving raw-milk cheeses.
Terry reports on the FDA’s recent enforcement actions at the Estrella dairy, and the Morningland Dairy in Missouri, involving reports of positive test results for listeria in raw-milk cheeses. As is nearly always the case where raw-milk is involved, those opposed to the actions perceive an unfair scrutiny by government officials.
Though intended to protect public health, that action fired up fears of some customers and food bloggers of an FDA crackdown on raw-milk products.
“Cheesemakers are always worried about overgoverning,” said Steve Jones, owner of the Cheese Bar in Southeast Portland. “Is this a case of overgoverning? I don’t know… But there’s protection and then there’s overgovernment. There’s a fine line between the two.”
The FDA denies any specific targeting of raw-milk dairy products:
"We treat them the same way we treat any other industry or producer, no matter how large of small,” says Alan Bennett, spokesman in Portland for the FDA. “If there are violations of (good manufacturing practices) and we find listeria, we’re going to take action.”
Cheese made with raw-milk certainly has support in the culinary world:
“A lot of people think it’s cheese in its pure form,” Simpson said. “Fewer people have handled it. There’s better flavor. When you pasteurize, a lot of people think that you’re killing everything so you have to add things to put flavor back in.”
Two of the biggest issues: sanitation, and the effectiveness of 60 days of aging in removing bacterial pathogens. As to the first, pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 and listeria monocytogenes present difficulty. Food safety attorney Bill Marler spoke specifically about the pernicious nature of listeria.
“It’s a difficult bug for producers to get their hands around,” says Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney and food-safety expert. “Big companies will shut down huge facilities and rebuild portions of them to get rid of listeria.”
Finally, there is the 60 day aging issue. Aging of the cheese had been previously thought by some to be sufficient protection against bacterial pathogens. It is not clear that this belief will hold, however: "The FDA now requires raw-milk cheese to be aged 60 days at a temperature of at least 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Agency scientists have considered that two-month period sufficient to kill harmful bacteria though they are now reconsidering that rule."
One can only hope that the current, sizable E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to raw-milk cheese will lead to further exploration of the issue.