By now, most of us are familiar with US regulations on unpasteurized, or raw-milk, cheeses. They have to undergo an aging process of at least 60 days at temperatures no less than 35 degrees F. But where did these laws come from? Why are they in place?
It all starts with the health risks presented by unpasteurized milk. (To get a full look at pasteurization and how that came about, read this article first.) The thirty-second explanation goes like this: urbanization and milk transportation meant a lot of people were getting sick and dying from drinking contaminated, unpasteurized milk. As more milk was pasteurized, so was the cheese being produced.
Part of this also had to do with cost and availability. The creation of railroads made it easy to transport milk, which meant that local farmers had an easier time selling all their milk and didn’t have to turn the leftover supply into cheese to avoid waste. By the turn of the century, much of the cheese that was sold in the US was done on an industrial scale. To cut costs, these cheesemakers often bought lower-quality milk. They also decided to source their milk from bigger farms rather than using numerous small dairies—that way they wouldn’t have to worry about one farm’s contaminated milk ruining their whole batch.
These changes were not regulated, and large-scale cheesemakers decided to pasteurize on their own. In 1949, the FDA decided to step in and make regulations for the cheesemakers who were still using unpasteurized milk. That year, they declared that if made from unpasteurized milk, all cheese would have to be aged for 60 days at a temperature of no less than 35 degrees F. Yep, you read that correctly: The current regulations on raw milk cheese were put into place more than sixty years ago and have not been amended much since.
Interestingly, the 60 day rule is not as hard and fast as you might think. In its rule-making release the FDA revealed its logic:
“Viable pathogenic microorganisms in cheese, even when present to such an extent as to be capable of causing disease in humans, tend to die when the cheese is held for some time at temperatures above 35° F. It is not known with certainty how long cheeses must be held before they become safe… No outbreak has been reported from cheese held 60 days or more.”
In other words, they know people don’t get sick if cheese is aged for 60 days, but it’s possible that 50 days might work just as well.
In 1987, the FDA proposed a rule which banned raw-milk cheeses from crossing state lines and being sold in a state other than where it was produced. This rule is significant largely because individual states have adopted their own raw-milk and raw-milk-cheese regulations, and many of them adopted bans against raw milk cheeses either after the regulation in 1949 or in the wake of the new rule in 1987.
Fast forward to today. Some cheeses cannot be made with unpasteurized milk at all. Soft and fresh cheeses are the biggest targets of these regulations. Take the FDA regulations for mozzarella, which do not allow for raw milk: “The dairy ingredients are pasteurized.” Harder cheeses that age a long time are largely allowed to use unpasteurized milk if they follow regulations.
One of the FDA’s biggest concerns is the presence of non-toxigenic E. coli in raw milk cheeses. There’s no doubt that E. coli sounds scary, but this is the strain that doesn’t cause illness or harm people. Other recent disputes over raw milk cheese production include the dust up over whether cheese can be aged on wooden boards, a traditional method that affects cheese’s flavor profiles.
Pasteurization doesn’t ensure the cheese will be safe beyond a shadow of a doubt—cheese can still be contaminated after the pasteurization process. Others argue that the complete sterility that tries to banish all bacteria actually opens up more spaces for the bad bacteria to get in. French cheesemakers try to encourage good bacteria to keep the harmful ones from entering cheese. The strict US regulations might seem foolproof, but the “kill first, ask questions later” policy when it comes to bacteria has some issues.
Cheesemaking has changed. Whereas farmstead cheesemakers were dying off in the early 1900s, there has now been a resurgence in artisan cheeses. Now that there is a way to test milk for pathogens and a better understanding has emerged of how to keep milk free from bad bacteria, cheeses are not at as great of a risk as they used to be. Society has changed a lot in the course of the last sixty years, and a law that has not been updated in that amount of time is surely at least a little bit outdated. So let’s have this dialogue, everybody!
Feature Photo CreditL: “Vintage photo of a Milkmaid Sitting Next To Stuffed Cow” by chippix | Shutterstock