FDA Reconsidering Raw Milk Cheese

At Sankow Beaver Brook Farm in Lyme, Suzanne Sankow talks about the different aging processes for her cheeses.

Some, like the Nehantic Abbey Cheese made with Jersey cow's milk, is aged for at least six months. That's what gives it a sharp flavor. But others, like a Pyrenees mountain cheese, can't be aged for more than two months.

"It has more whey in it as it's pressed, and it's very gently treated," she said. "As it ages, it dries out more and you come to an area where it's nice and moist. If you wait to three or four months, it begins to dry, and it doesn't have the bite you need."

Like others who produce raw milk cheese, Sankow fears that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could take that bite out of her product.

Citing a number of outbreaks of food-borne diseases in raw milk cheese, the FDA is reviewing whether the current 60-day aging requirement is sufficient to kill off the pathogens in the cheese.

Raw milk cheese is any cheese made with unpasteurized milk, and in the U.S., small independent businesses make most of the raw milk cheese on the market. Raw milk cheeses generally sell for prices significantly higher than the average pasteurized cheese, but fans say it's worth it: Other cheeses don't offer the same textures and rich flavors.

There are four certified manufacturers of raw milk cheese in the state, according to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. All are small businesses; the biggest is Cato Corner Farm in Colchester, which has 45 Jersey cows. The farm is run by the mother-and-son team of Elizabeth Gillman and Mark Gillman. They age their cheeses underground in a man-made cave for proper humidity. Some of their cheeses take nine months to age, Mark Gillman said, but others reach their peak at two months.

"That wouldn't hold up for another month," he said, holding a block of "Hooligan cheese," a custom cheese similar to an Italian Taleggio.

Ideally, Gillman said, regulations would focus more on ensuring that cheese is made in a safe environment rather than mandatory aging requirements. He noted that some of the best cheeses are made in France, where there is no minimum aging requirement.

"Raw milk has been and can be made safely," he said." "We live in an environment that's overly focused on sterility, and there's an unwillingness to accept that food is part of a natural process."

At the FDA, Siobhan DeLancey stresses that no changes are being made at this time. A committee of the FDA has drafted a report, which will be published before the end of the year, at which point it will be open to public comment.

"Basically, we could find that the 60-day rule is sufficient time for pathogens to die," she said, "or we could find that it's not sufficient and then decide where to go from there."

She said the 60-day rule is "something that evolved out of tradition" and doesn't have a lot of science backing it up.

"First, we want to get a good understanding of the science behind [the aging process of cheese]," she said. "The 60-day rule has been in place since the 1940s and is not really science-based. It's more 'This is the way we've always done it.' "

According to a recent article in Food Poison Journal, the 60-day requirement in the U.S. likely goes back to a 1946 experiment on aging cheese, plus data from experiments in Canada that found that Salmonella typhi — the pathogen that causes typhoid — survived a 30-day aging process, but not periods of 48 days or 63.

But other more recent studies have been less reassuring, said Sheila Andrew, extension dairy expert and associate professor at the University of Connecticut. She cited a 2008 study at the University of Vermont in which E. coli bacteria in raw milk survived the 60-day aging process.

Andrew said she hasn't read enough of the research to make a specific recommendation on the 60-day requirement, but said there are enough questions about it to warrant review.

"I think they're very wise to look into it," she said. "I think it's wise looking into the science, maybe conducting more studies, especially with some of these pathogens, which are very virulent and can cause serious health concerns."

Whatever happens, said Vermont cheesemaker Mateo Kehler,it probably won't happen for a while.

"Changing a rule is a protracted, long-term process that is pretty involved," he said. "It's as involved as creating new rules."

Kehler said he thinks the 60-day rule served its purpose, back when it was created shortly after World War II. Then, he said, it was enforced as a way to make sure that cheddar cheese was safe. But the cheese market in the U.S. is much more diverse and sophisticated than it once was, he said, and the rule is a clumsy way to ensure safety.

"Now there are a lot of different cheeses that are out there," he said. "Some are actually more risky as they age." They become more alkaline as they ripen, he said, "which means that they support more microbial growth."

But he's concerned about what could happen with the FDA review, since much of the discussion has focused on the aging process.

"Listeria, which is the big bugaboo in the cheese industry right now, can't be aged out of cheese, and it's the prime pathogen of concern. Pasteurized cheese is as likely to be contaminated [with listeria] as raw milk cheese," he said. "Pasteurization doesn't solve the root problem, which is environmental, when it comes to listeria in cheese."

He met with FDA officials in March as a representative of the American Cheese Society. The FDA was mum on specifics, he said, but the sense he got was that more specialized regulations could end up taking the place of the blanket 60-day rule.

"Every food produced would have to have a control plan," he said. "If you're going to produce a riskier product, you're going to need a more robust plan."