Planet Cheese is a weekly blog devoted to everything cheese: products, people, places, news, and views. James Beard Award–winning journalist Janet Fletcher writes Planet Cheese from her home in Napa Valley. Janet is the author of Cheese & Wine, Cheese & Beer, and The Cheese Course and an occasional contributor to culture. Visit janetfletcher.com to sign up for Planet Cheese and view Janet’s current schedule of cheese appreciation classes.
Spinach. Melons. Burgers. Chicken. Eggs. Peanuts. Is anything safe to eat any more? All of these foods (and others) have been implicated in outbreaks of food-borne illness. Recently, a domestic raw-milk cheese joined the list. Authorities say it sickened six people, two of whom died. That is tragic—no other word for it. But should you cross raw-milk cheese off your shopping list?
Eating will never be a zero-risk activity. But we rightly expect food producers to take every reasonable risk-minimizing step. Most cheesemakers do. The American Cheese Society publishes a best-practices guide for cheesemakers that FDA experts have reviewed. Aged raw-milk cheeses made in licensed facilities have an impressive safety record.
After the news broke about listeria at Vulto Creamery, a small producer in Walton, N.Y., and the illnesses attributed to its Ouleout cheese, I turned to three other raw-milk cheesemakers for perspective. My own outlook hasn’t changed; I still believe that raw-milk cheeses are among the safest foods in my fridge. But if you are questioning the safety of aged raw-milk cheese (aged less than 60 days, it’s not legal), you might appreciate these views from the trenches.
Listeria is an environmental contaminant. So the risk that it poses, it poses to pasteurized-milk cheese, too. It’s not specifically associated with raw milk at all. It is pervasive. The FDA, as part of its risk profiling, found listeria in about one-quarter of all cheese manufacturing plants. Artisan plants had a lower incidence than industrial plants. The point being, this microbe is all over the place and needs to be managed. Is it a raw-milk cheese issue? No, it’s a cheese issue.
We’ve been able to essentially eradicate listeria from our milk supply by changing our farming practices. We test every lot of raw milk for listeria. For our cellars, we have a quarantine process and a cheese doesn’t go into our general population until we have clear results from our tests. But it’s not just about monitoring our raw-milk supply. We monitor our environment and verify that all is working by end-product testing. We have a seek-and-destroy philosophy for listeria and it works.
Why do you continue to make raw-milk cheese?
Because there’s a direct correlation between complexity of flavor and microbial diversity in the milk that cheese is made from. And there’s another part: We are committed to developing products that reflect a taste of place. We would be so much more profitable if we pasteurized everything but that’s not our mission. We’re trying to make products that have a relationship to our specific geography. The practices that we use to produce raw milk set us apart from many of our colleagues because we have to operate at a higher level.
My brother and I sleep well at night because we have great people and great systems to manage our risk. We’ve been testing since the day we starting making cheese; it’s just a cost of producing our product.
We follow the best protocols in the industry, protocols that research has shown reduce the risk of contamination to below that of pasteurized cheese. The FDA’s own work has shown that when you test the milk itself, test each batch of cheese and thoroughly test the facility, the likelihood of releasing a contaminated product is lower than that of pasteurized cheese that hasn’t been tested.
Why do you continue to make raw-milk cheese given the scrutiny?
The benefit to flavor is beyond doubt. Secondly, we’re confident that it can be done safely. And third, it’s not correct to assume that contamination in a raw-milk cheese is even due to the milk. More likely, the contamination occurred post production, during ripening. If we were to pasteurize our milk, most of the risk would still exist.
John Shuman, Cascadia Creamery (Trout Lake, WA), producers of raw-milk Cloud Cap, Glacier Blue, Sawtooth and Sleeping Beauty
What do you do to guarantee the safety of your cheeses?
It starts with knowing your milk supply. Our supplier is someone I know well; I’ve spent years working at that dairy. They test every load of milk and their test scores are awesome. If a test indicated “dirty” milk, we would pull that batch of cheese. (Test results take a few days.)
We swab the factory regularly to see if our sanitation is working. We’re very aware of how a pathogen can get in and grow, and we’re thinking about it all the time. This (Vulto incident) was not a wakeup call. We were already doing all the stuff we need to do. Our mindset is constant awareness.
Why continue to make raw-milk cheese?
I believe in biological diversity, in the health benefits of a live food. Listeria is omnipresent. It’s in the soil. It’s almost guaranteed if you swab any drain in country you will find Listeria.
Aged raw-milk cheese is statistically safer than a lot of other foods. It has a diverse biological profile, so you don’t have an open venue for pathogens to grow unchecked. The raw-milk bacteria out-compete the pathogens.
Does the Vulto incident change anything for you?
I pulled our washed cheese (Sawtooth) off the production schedule. People are probably going to stop buying some of these cheeses for a while. I’m sure it’s going to affect sales, and I’m sure we’re going to lose accounts. There are going to be stores that just won’t carry raw-milk cheeses.