Is Raw Milk Cheese Here to Stay?

Would you eat cheese made from raw milk at a restaurant? I did, recently, at The Green Well in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

For those of you following my blog, you may think I’m beating a dead horse here with the raw milk issue. But a timely article in The New York Times cannot go unnoticed after my recent posts, “The Raw Milk Debate” and “How Ice Cream Gave Me the Warm Fuzzies.” And, I’m here to say I survived another raw milk experience.

According to the article, cheesemakers and foodies are worried because federal regulators may change the rules for the gourmet cheese industry. The government is concerned about two multistate E. coli outbreaks that sickened nearly 50 people. (Investigators have not said whether the contamination in those cases has been traced to the unpasteurized milk used to make the cheese.In one case, investigators documented unsanitary conditions that could have played a role in making the cheese unsafe; in the other, the company was charged with packaging cheese for sale before the required 60-day aging was complete.)

Raw milk cheese is made from unpasteurized milk, which cheesemakers claim have a certain rich flavor that is destroyed in the pasteurization process because enzymes and good bacteria add flavor to cheese. They also claim raw milk cheese derives flavors from the animals and the pastureland that produce the milk, much as wine is said to draw unique flavors from individual vineyards.

Current regulations require “cheese made from raw milk to be aged for 60 days before it is deemed safe to eat.” Since raw milk has not been heated to kill harmful bacteria (i.e., the pasteurization process), aging allows the chemicals in cheese, acids and salt, time to destroy harmful bacteria.

But cheeses vary in their needs for aging, so 60 days (an arbitrary number) may not be appropriate for every kind. The new proposal has the industry worried because raw milk cheese could be banned altogether; or the ones that pose a higher safety risk might be prohibited if made with raw milk. Another concern is that the aging period may be extended, perhaps to 90 days, making it difficult or impossible for cheesemakers to continue using raw milk for some popular cheese styles that are best when aged in less time.

Watch for the feds’ proposal over the next few months to see if raw milk cheese is staying or going.


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