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Controversy over raw-milk cheese likely coming to a head

A decision by the Food and Drug Administration is expected soon on its raw-milk standards for cheese which would likely affect small artisan cheese producers in the United States and Europe.
A decision by the Food and Drug Administration is expected soon on its raw-milk standards for cheese which would likely affect small artisan cheese producers in the United States and Europe. Special to The Kansas City Star

Raw-milk cheese has been in the news over the last couple months. The Food and Drug Administration has been reviewing its raw-milk standards for cheese for the last several years, and many think it will soon make a decision that will affect the small artisan cheese producers in the United States and Europe.

The most recent dustup has come by way of a hold by the FDA on imports from Europe of certain cheeses it deemed unfit for consumption. The FDA’s statement on the issue can be read here.

The “problem” was found in several traditional raw-milk cheeses that we know well, Roquefort being the most well-known. You can read the long list of affected cheeses on FDA Import Alert #12-10 here.

Something called nontoxigenic E. coli is to blame for the hold on these cheeses. At first glance, most people would say, “Well, good, I don’t want cheese to be let into the U.S. that is contaminated with E. coli.” Right? Except that this type of E. coli does not make people sick.

The FDA noted that the high levels of this type of E. coli in cheese is a sign that the cheese was produced in unsanitary conditions. But that is not necessarily the case, as the FDA pointed out in 2009. Check out this article here to learn more about the FDA’s change of heart.

I am not a microbiologist, but I do know that there are a lot of scary-sounding bacteria in cheese that are perfectly fine to eat, and I am willing to let the cheese makers’ tradition, expertise and vast knowledge of their products be the authority on which bacteria are fine.

Why is that? For one thing, there are many layers of government regulation in Europe, and the cheese culture there has been in place for many hundreds of years. Personally, I don’t think we should take Europe’s lead on too many things, but on this I am willing to yield to their local governments and the European Union.

As far as I know, there are no European cheese producers sending cheese to the United States that they would not sell in Europe. I suspect the reason for the lack of news like that is because the layers of EU regulations would not allow it. And it’s a business, and they want to make money. It would be rather obtuse for them to send cheese through U.S. Customs that was “contaminated” by unsanitary production. Sounds like a good way to lose money.

It seems the problem is the FDA. Obviously the FDA does a lot to ensure the safety of our food supply, and we definitely need some government entity to do that, but shouldn’t the first rule be “If it is not going to make someone sick, leave it alone”?

And in most other cases, a warning should be enough for people to make their own choices. Take raw milk and raw-milk cheese, for instance. There are some risks associated with them, especially to the very old, very young and people with immunity problems. But that does not mean we should not have the choice to consume them. A simple warning on a label would do.

While they are at it, they could put warnings on almost every other product that has the potential to make you sick. Which is pretty much everything we eat.

I believe the issue runs deeper then just raw milk and raw-milk cheese. We as a society have become a people who don’t really want choice. We want someone who “knows better” to make the choice for us. It’s easier that way.

But we need to realize that in most cases we have the knowledge and common sense to make good sound decisions about what we eat with minimal risk to our heath and lives.

Check out these great video segments about raw milk and raw milk cheese from PBS.

Lincoln Broadbooks loves cheese. He is one of the first cheesemongers in the United States and Canada to become an American Cheese Society certified cheese professional. He is the manager and buyer for The Better Cheddar in Prairie Village. You can find him on Twitter @LincolnBbooks and on Instagram @lincycheese.

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