Health-conscious consumers like raw milk cheese because it retains living microorganisms. But it is also getting more attention from state and federal regulators because, if handled improperly, the cheese can carry harmful pathogens.
Raw milk cheese — which is made from unpasteurized milk — has gathered a small but fervent following for its taste, nutritional benefits and freshness.
“I feel like it was part of the pasteurization process that makes [dairy] unavailable to me and so the raw cheese I could eat,” said Sunyata Markey, 38, on a recent shopping trip at Clover’s Natural Market in Columbia, Mo. She has been a fan of raw milk cheese most of her life because her blood type makes it difficult for her to digest meat and dairy products.
Like a growing number of consumers, Markey believes raw milk cheese is more nutritious because pasteurization hasn’t killed living beneficial organisms in the milk. But not pasteurizing milk can also allow harmful bacteria to live.
Just last month, Morningland Dairy, which has been making raw milk cheese in Mountain View, Mo., for 30 years, went out of business after the Missouri Milk Board seized 36,000 pounds of its raw cheese because some tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes and Staph aureus. And in Jamesport, Mo., three people recently got sick after eating an unpasteurized cheese called Flory’s Favorite. The cases were linked through DNA to samples of Flory’s cheese contaminated with Shiga-Toxin producing E. coli, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
Such problems with contaminated cheese are devastating for the raw milk industry, according to Krista Dittman, a cheese-maker who owns Branched Oak Farm, with her husband Doug Dittman, in Raymond, Neb.
“I think it creates a lot of fear in the industry and it creates a lot of dissonance between producers and regulators,” said Dittman, who questions why Morningland Dairy’s contaminated cheese could not have been destroyed without putting the company out of business.
That’s a concern for many in this industry. A recent survey by the American Cheese Society found 59 percent of cheese-makers make products with unpasteurized milk.
Morningland Dairy’s lawyer Pete Kennedy also lamented the heavy price for cheese-makers.
“It creates a chilling effect on other people getting into the business,” said Kennedy, who is also the president of the nonprofit Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. “You’re going to spend all this money on equipment and a plant if something like this can happen?”
But it’s not like the recent incidents in Missouri are unusual. Raw milk cheese has sickened more than 500 people in the U.S. over the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cheese-makers are bracing for stricter regulations.
Today, raw milk cheese can be sold legally nationwide — and across state lines — as long as it has been aged for 60 days. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has launched a comprehensive risk assessment, with special attention on how cheese-makers could reduce potential risks. The agency hopes to publish its findings and open them up for public comment by the end of September.
Some producers worry the FDA will extend the amount of time required to age raw cheese or even ban the sale of raw cheese across state lines.
That’s what happened with raw milk itself when in 1987, the FDA outlawed sales across state lines. Although about 30 states today allow raw milk to be sold for human consumption, in many of those states consumers must visit dairies in person to make that purchase.
In Iowa, which is one of the states where it is illegal to buy raw milk from a store or farm, consumers buy parts of cows, sheep and goats to consume the product -- though that also is illegal. Iowa State Sen. Kent Sorenson has introduced a bill that would make it easier for consumers to purchase raw milk in Iowa, and several other states are considering similar legislation.
Richard Raymond, who served as Under Secretary for Food Safety for the Department of Agriculture from 2005 to 2009, said he is concerned about the loosening of regulations regarding raw milk.
“The pasteurization of milk, which became more or less the standard in the 1940s, dramatically dropped the incidents of foodborne illnesses, particularly in children, because it’s a very simple step to guarantee the safety of the milk,” he said from his home in Colorado. “And to undo that – to me, as a physician and as a public health person — is just plain wrong.”
Raymond said that’s why he wouldn’t mind banning the interstate sale of raw milk cheese.
But Neville McNaughton, who advises farmers on best practices for pasteurized and raw milk cheese-making, said it’s not the role of state and federal regulators to ensure safe cheese is being made. That responsibility lies with the cheese-maker.
“An active program of screening milk will make raw milk producers aware of the presence or not of pathogens in their milk used for cheese-making,” he said.
RAW MILK HODGEPODGE
Producers of raw milk cheese can sell their product across state lines if it’s been aged at least 60 days. For raw milk though, it’s a different story. Some 30 states allow the sale of raw milk for human consumption, according to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. And in most of those states, consumers have to go to farms to buy the raw milk. Click on each state on this map to find out where raw milk is legal to buy and the approximate number of illnesses caused by pathogens found in raw milk products from 1998 to the present.
Notes: Herd share means buying a share of a cow, sheep or goat for its raw milk. Map does not include outbreaks in 2001 and 2005 that sickened 45 people since producers were based in multiple states.