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These laws really stink.

April 07, 2017

There is no more universally beloved food than cheese. It's on your charcuterie plate, it's on your pizza and it even causes our greatest heroes to burst into song. However, while much of the world can agree that cheese is one of our most delicious creations, there is a great deal of legal disagreement over how cheese should be made. 

Specifically, the issue rests on the question of if the production of raw milk, and therefore raw milk cheese, should be allowed. While many countries support the production and consumption of raw milk cheese, there is one pesky actor that has long disagreed with the rest of the world's sentiment: the United States.

There are many laws and regulations affecting the cheese and dairy industry in the United States. However, none is more contentious than the FDA mandated pasteurization of all milk products for human consumption that was instituted in 1987. As a quick refresher, pasteurization is the process of heating a liquid or a food to kill pathogenic bacteria to make the product safe to consume. For dairy products in particular, the liquid is heated to 145°F (63°C) for at least 30 minutes or at least 161°F (72°C) for 15 seconds, which then gives the products a longer shelf life by destroying undesirable enzymes and spoilage bacteria. 

The judge in the seminal case ruled that unpasteurized milk is unsafe and banned the shipment of raw milk with the exception of raw milk cheese, provided it has been aged a minimum of 60 days and is clearly labeled as unpasteurized. While this seems all well and good, the majority of raw milk cheeses that we love, like authentic Camembert, Roquefort and Brie, won't stay fresh on the shelf for more than 10 days, which means that that they won't survive the legally required aging. Additionally, in 2014 the FDA lowered its maximum bacteria level standard from 100 MPN (most probable number) to 10 MPN, meaning that even small levels of harmless bacteria can prevent cheeses from being available in the U.S.

Essentially, the FDA is trying to prevent people from consuming bacteria-filled cheese, which, in theory, is a good thing. However, fewer than 1,000 cases of people getting sick from raw milk products have been reported in the United States since 1998. As a result, American cheesemongers and producers are much more limited in the cheese they can produce or import, compared to their European contemporaries.

Unpasteurized cheeses specifically are typically soft in texture, rich in flavor and pungent in odor and eaten either directly before or after meals in order to enhance digestion. They're the cheeses that you can spread on bread much like warmed butter and that exude aromas that cause your brain to wonder, "do I like this or am I repulsed by this?"

While the FDA continues to uphold its rigorous standards, the French, who produce more than 1,000 types of cheese and consume the second most cheese in Europe after Greece, celebrate raw milk cheese as part of their culinary culture, even as they veer more into the dark side of pasteurized cheese. According to Newsweek, as French cheese sales migrate away from specialty shops and into supermarkets, raw milk cheese sales in France continue to drop and now make up only 10 percent of the total market, compared with 100 percent 70 years ago.  

Much like the world as a whole, cheese is changing, and unfortunately the trend towards pasteurization seems to only be picking up steam. If you live in one of the 29 American states that allows the sale of raw milk products, make sure to enjoy the spoils while you can. For a life without good cheese is simply too much to Camem-bare.