What’s the Deal with Raw Cheese, Anyway?

A woman came into my shop recently searching for “raw cheeses.” She didn’t care what kinds they were, so long as they were raw.

This was exciting to me as a cheesemonger, given the hullabaloo this year over raw-milk cheeses.

In case you weren’t aware, one person died and seven people became sick with Listeriosis after eating cheeses from Vulto Creamery. Listeria was found on those cheeses, which happened to be made from raw milk. This of course led to a myriad of sources proclaiming the dangers of eating raw-milk cheeses.

Just a few weeks ago, Nick Bayne, the lead cheesemonger at Brooklyn’s Foster Sundry, posted on his Instagram account that he had been interviewed by a Buzzfeed reporter about raw milk cheeses, and that she had spun the interview so as to paint raw-milk cheeses as a “trendy” hipster food. She had also fed into the hysteria by writing a rather uninformed take on the inherent dangers of raw-milk cheeses.

I only met Nick recently, at Counter Culture Portland, and I was instantly aware that he is very passionate about cheese—as you have to be for having won the Cheesemonger Invitational, I’d say—and he is someone who knows his stuff. Expert or not, and regardless of being interviewed by a clickbait purveyor or a real journalist, most people want their words to be conveyed accurately and objectively.

Yet this is just one of many examples of a “news” outlet creating an unbalanced and negative view of raw-milk cheeses, despite using credible sources that say the contrary.

Winnimere is a raw-milk cheese from the Cellars at Jasper Hill.

So why is it important that so much of what has been written about raw-milk cheeses as of late be regarded as “hysteria,” and why is it so exciting in relation to that when people would still go looking for raw-milk cheeses?

The excitement is easier to explain.

After so many nay-sayers have asserted the dangers of raw-milk cheeses, you would expect consumers to stop looking for them altogether or to make sure they are not buying them. I haven’t seen much of that necessarily, but I have heard from other cheesemongers who have had people say things like, “no raw-milk cheeses, please.”

(Unless somebody is pregnant and has been told by her doctor to avoid things like raw-milk cheeses and sushi, that is something a cheesemonger should never want to hear.)

So what are raw-milk cheeses, and why is it so easy to portray them as cheese assassins?

Raw-milk cheeses are those made with unpasteurized, or raw, milk. Sometimes the milk is thermalized (heated, but not fully pasteurized), and oftentimes it is just raw, straight from the udder.

Cheese was made with raw milk for millennia, so pasteurization is a relatively new trend. Many people would argue that raw-milk cheeses are more flavorful and present more accurate representations of traditional old-world cheeses, their recipes, and their respective terroirs.

In the United States, the FDA has forbidden the sale of raw-milk cheeses aged for fewer than 60 days. This is why we can’t import real French Brie de Meaux or Camembert de Normandie, for example—because those cheeses, in order to receive AOC recognition, must be made with raw milk. And since they are young cheeses, aged for much fewer than 60 days, Americans never get to taste them unless they go abroad.

I’ve also recently heard customers chatting at my case, talking about how all raw-milk cheeses are banned in the US. That’s not necessarily true.

Some states have very stringent rules forbidding raw-milk cheeses or interstate sales of them, but many states allow them to be made and sold so long as they follow FDA guidelines and are not released to consumers before 60 days.

The guidelines, as well as the technique of pasteurization, are all part of a greater desire for food safety. As a society, we got interested in food safety in the earlier part of the last century, because a lot of people were dying from tainted foods.

Technically speaking, milk that has been pasteurized has either been placed into a heat exchanger and heated to 161 Degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds (HHST, or High Heat Short Time pasteurization), or dumped into a vat and heated to 145 Degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes (vat or batch pasteurization). Milk can also be ultrapasteurized, heated to 280 Degrees Fahrenheit for 2 seconds, but cheese cannot be made from ultrapasteurized milk.

Pasteurization has been employed to prevent people from getting sick from food-born illnesses that may thrive in unclean milk or unsanitary environments. The key words here are unclean and unsanitary.

Listeria, e. coli, and their filthy pals don’t just come out of the cow with the milk or grow inside the cantaloupe on the fields. (Full disclosure: one of my aunts became sick and ultimately died from the 2012 canteloupe-caused listeria outbreak.)

These bacteria come from the earth—the soil, the water—the environment, from the handling of the milk, from the worker’s hands, from the facility, etc. In other words, food producers must ensure the highest levels of sanitation every step of the way from cow to counter in order to prevent illnesses from occurring.

Making raw-milk cheeses in many countries does not mean that farmers get to have an easier job of making their cheeses since they don’t have to pasteurize their milk first. No, it actually means they have even stricter guidelines for sanitation—the expectations placed upon them are much higher than those on their milk-pasteurizing peers.

And in many instances, swabs from raw-milk cheeses test cleaner than swabs from their pasteurized counterparts.

Milk has not historically been a food that has killed tons of people in its raw form. So why do we pasteurize it, then?

The biggest reason for many producers is economics.

In order to produce enough cheese to make a good amount of money, cheesemakers either need to make cheese twice a day—with each milking—or cold-hold their milk until they have enough for one really big batch. If you’re going to hold hundreds of gallons of milk, those gallons will need to be pasteurized to ensure that no bacteria have been swimming around in the tank, fat and happy, ready and waiting to infect consumers.

Tied up closely with this is the food safety element.

Pasteurization kills off pathogens in the milk—that is, the bacteria like E. coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Listeria monocytogenes which are all responsible for often-deadly food-borne illnesses. If one cow’s milk has been contaminated and gets into the vat with the milk from her 20 neighbors, all of that milk is compromised. Pasteurizing the entire batch ensures that none of those contaminants make it any further in the production process.

But that doesn’t mean that contaminants can’t get into the milk or onto the cheese after it has been pasteurized. If someone’s hands are dirty, or if they track dirty soil into the make room with their shoes, or if the tools are dirty, pathogens can end up in raw or pasteurized milk, the resulting cheese, and eventually in someone’s body.

So just because cheese is made from pasteurized milk doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be safe, and just because cheese is made from raw milk doesn’t mean it’s inherently unsafe.

The bottom line is that the dairy farmer, the cheesemaker, the distributor, and the cheesemonger all need to ensure sanitary conditions and high standards along every step of the way until that cheese gets into your refrigerator.

Just as one environment or person can contaminate the cheese during its production process, another environment or contact with cheese from another environment can infect a safe cheese at any point along the distribution and retail chain.

On a final note, many people believe that raw-milk cheeses have a superior flavor profile than that of pasteurized cheeses. Michael H. Tunick, in his book The Science of Cheese, points out that some connoisseurs refer to pasteurized cheeses as “dead,” because pasteurization kills not only all of the bad bacteria in the milk, but also the majority of the good bacteria that can lead to flavor development (page 26).

Certainly, all things related to taste are subjective.

But one thing that is not subjective is the inherent safety of “raw cheeses” relative to pasteurized-milk cheeses.

I encourage you, next time you are in your local cheese shop, to try one of the raw-milk cheeses they sell. If you can, compare it to a similar cheese made from pasteurized milk. See what you notice about the depth of flavor in each cheese; maybe you’ll notice a difference, or maybe you won’t!

Comté “au lait cru” — from raw milk

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