Recently, the Food and Drug Administration got nervous about food-borne illnesses and floated the idea of a zero-tolerance policy that would outlaw selling any cheese made from unpasteurized milk, including Parmigiano-Reggiano and Swiss Gruyère. When the Feds started talking about cheese in language they usually reserve for drug dealers, you might have wondered if something was awry in Washington. The government, though, claimed it had scientific evidence that raw-milk cheese was a menace to society.
In response, a group of cheesemongers, cheesemakers and cheese lovers formed the Cheese of Choice Coalition to defend these strange, stinky and delicious dairy products. One of its first moves was to ask a microbiologist at the University of Vermont, Dr. Catherine W. Donnelly, to take a hard look at the scientific record. Donnelly has now finished her work, to be released later this month. While Factors Associated with the Microbiological Safety of Cheeses Prepared from Raw Milk: A Review may not be the season's sexiest page-turner, Donnelly's demonstration of the way scientific studies were misused to give raw-milk cheese a bad rap does make fascinating reading. In case after case of food poisoning from cheese tainted with salmonella, E. coli or other pathogens, Donnelly points to factors other than unpasteurized milk: contamination during or after cheese making, careless milk storage, poor sanitation practices. In fact, her analysis raises the possibility that raw milk is actually safer than pasteurized, because it contains microbes that fight dangerous bacteria.
The only raw-milk cheeses U.S. law now permits for sale are those that have been aged for at least 60 days. Pro-pasteurization forces argue that this restriction is insufficient, citing an experiment showing that raw-milk Cheddar inoculated with E. coli remained tainted even after two months. Donnelly pulls that study apart too, pointing out that the dose of E. coli was far higher than any that would naturally occur in milk.
An advance copy of Donnelly's review is already in Washington, where it seems to have hit its mark: Agency sources have told the coalition's cochairman, K. Dun Gifford, that the FDA is holding off on enacting the ban until it can give the issue a closer look. In the meantime, artisanal American cheesemakers are working up a set of self-imposed quality-assurance standards. By policing themselves, they hope to keep the cops off their cheese.