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Suggested ban on raw milk cheeses overlooks that properly aged cheese is safe

Dairy only accounted for 20% of the food borne illnesses in the US. This number includes eggs. On the other hand 46% of food borne illnesses were caused by produce.

Lincoln Broadbooks, Kansas City StarSt Journal, Jan 1, 2014

I recently read an article about a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics concerning the consumption of raw milk and products made from raw milk.

I encourage all of you to go and read the article and then to forget everything it says because it is pretty worthless.

Now if you are reading this and looking for a medical opinion, I, your trusty cheesemonger, am probably not your best bet. I would never urge anyone to go against his or her doctor’s advice.

I have spent considerable amounts of time making sure customers get cheeses that are made with pasteurized milk because their doctor told them to abstain from unpasteurized.

The customers are usually pregnant women or husbands of pregnant women. My wife was told to not eat raw milk cheese while she was pregnant, but her sister was told not to worry about it by her doctor.

I just always assumed that the doctors that advised against it were not keeping up with recent studies and just went with what they had been told. Apparently I was wrong because this AAP study calls for a ban on raw milk and raw milk cheese.

The conventional wisdom has been that raw milk cheese has a greater risk of containing nasty bugs like E Coli, Salmonella or Listeria, so if you pasteurize the milk before the cheese making process then there is nothing to worry about.

The AP article likens pasteurization to wearing your seat belt. There are all kinds of problems with this analogy but I wont get into that right now.

So if raw milk and raw milk cheese is so dangerous, why does the FDA allow for the sale of raw milk cheese in the United States and why does Europe have even more lax laws then the United States?

In the United States, the FDA has what has come to be known as “the 60 day rule.” All cheeses made from raw milk must be aged over 60 days in order to be fit for sale in the United States.

In hard cheeses with relatively low moisture, studies have shown that bacteria like Listeria have been shown to die off during the aging process. This depends on a lot of factors that the cheese maker deals with but as long as the cheese is made and stored properly there is little risk for humans who consume it.

Under the 60 day rule, fresh un-aged cheeses and some soft ripened cheese are effectively unable to be made with raw milk because of nonexistent or short ripening periods. But these kinds of cheeses have a higher likelihood of having bad bacteria even with pasteurization because of their high moisture content.

A good example of this is the Crave Brothers recall this summer. Where two lives were lost and six sickened because of soft cheese that was contaminated by Listeria. Now these Wisconsin cheeses were soft washed rind cheeses made from raw milk right? Wrong. They were made from pasteurized milk.

Let me ask you, do you like to enjoy a nice piece of Roquefort? Or how about dipping a nice crusty loaf into bubbling pot of fondue made with Gruyere and Emmentaler? Or some local specialties like Flory’s Truckle or the cheeses made by Skyview Creamery in Pleasanton, Kan. All made with raw milk.

If you don’t remember anything I write in this post just remember this. From 1998 to 2008 — the most recent numbers I could find from the CDC — show that 46 percent of the illnesses attributed to food in the U.S. were caused by produce.

Dairy on the other hand only accounted for 20 percent of the food borne illnesses in the US. This number includes eggs as well. Even meat and poultry are a greater risk at 22 percent.

The numbers for deaths caused buy food commodities are very similar. Again dairy and eggs come in at a lower percentage then meat and produce.

If the risk of eating produce is higher than the risk of eating cheese then why are we talking about banning raw milk cheese? It seems to me we should be talking about banning fruits and vegetables or even meat and poultry. I can’t see that happening but I can foresee a ban on raw milk cheese because many just don’t understand the product.

Case in point, after 20 years of the French cheese mimolette being imported to the US the FDA decided to ban it from the country in the summer of 2013, because it has what are known as “cheese mites” on the rind, a very common occurrence in cheese aging and not a health risk. Their reason for the ban? Possible allergic reaction to the mites.

Its funny because I have cut many a Mimolette and never had a reaction to the mites dust nor have I ever had a customer bring the cheese back and say that it gave them hives or gave them breathing problems. Nothing. I have not heard of this problem in France where the cheese is made either.

Cheese has been made with raw milk for thousands of years, way before modern science and when there were problems with it precautions were taken to ensure its safety.

Now we know so many ways to keep cheese safe that we have very few health problems associated with raw milk cheese in the grand scheme of things.

Should raw milk cheese be banned? If yes, then we need to ban pasteurized cheese also and while we are at it we should ban fruit and meat and countless other foods.

I hope they are on the cusp of making a pill that will supply us with all the nutritional needs we will ever need. That way we will never have to eat any of these “dangerous” foods ever again.

Lincoln Broadbooks loves cheese. He is one of the first cheesemongers in the United States and Canada to become an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional. He is the manager and buyer for The Better Cheddar in Prairie Village. You can check out his monthly Cheese Wiz column in Tastebud Magazine and find him on Twitter @LincolnBbook and on Instagram @lincycheese.

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