I’ve received numerous questions in regards to raw milk cheeses during my time selling cheese. Is it safe? What does it “raw” mean (in the case of milk, it means unpasteurized)? Why can’t we sell young raw milk cheeses in the US?
Originally, the issue of raw milk cheeses was centered on “the 60 day rule.” Raw milk cheeses were allowed to be made, imported and sold in the United States provided they were aged for 60 days. Though these laws had been in place since the 40’s, it was still possible to find raw Camemberts and Bries in this country, with only a moderate amount of difficultly.
In 2005, the FDA began cracking down on importers. Producers who were known for making young raw milk cheeses were pulled aside and held on pallets, waiting for a complete inspection. The issue was no longer about age, but about moisture content. Cheeses that were creamy enough to be labeled “soft” or “semi-soft’ were stopped from coming into the country. Now, though it’s still possible to find these cheeses, quantities are very scarce and likely to be found only as the result of some seriously alternative shipping methods.
Why all the fuss about raw milk cheeses? In a word: Listeria. More specifically, listeriosis, the disease caused by the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. Listeriosis is very serious, especially for pregnant women. Among most of the population, the symptoms are equal to a bad case of the flu with some developing more serious illness and even death. For pregnant women, it can cause miscarriages and stillbirths. That said, the risk of developing listeriosis is very nominal. In a country like France, where raw milk cheeses are the norm, the last serious outbreak reported by the World Health Organization was in 2000, when 7 people died (and that outbreak wasn't even caused by raw milk cheese). Considering how much raw milk brie and camembert the country consumes, these are pretty slim odds.
The problem with the almost total ban on raw milk cheeses is that pasteurization is not the solution. Back in 2002, cheese from the Abbott’s Choice company was found to have Listeria, even though the cheeses were pasteurized. Listeria can not only survive in temperatures up to 150 degrees (and the minimum temperature for pasteurization is 145), but milk can be contaminated after the pasteurization process. In addition, Listeria is not limited to cheese. In fact, raw vegetables, fish and even cooked poultry have been known to possess this bacteria.
What is the solution? Do what makes you feel comfortable. Personally, I would not (and have not) hesistate to eat raw milk cheese, as well as sushi and all of the other “dangerous foods”. In fact, if you haven’t guessed, I am a very strong supporter of the superior flavor of raw milk cheeses. I feel that anyone who has done a comparison between pasteurized and raw milk versions will find it hard to disagree in this respect. That said, I would never try to force someone out of their comfort zone just for the sake of some cheese.