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FDA Reiterates Demonization of Raw-Milk Cheese

A new joint report from American and Canadian health officials condemns raw-milk cheese, stating the associated risk of listeriosis is 50-160 times higher than cheese made from pasteurized milk. The FDA has become something of an adversary to cheesemakers, and the agency’s reputation for obstinance and opacity precedes them. I’ve become something of an expert on raw-milk cheese, so this newest study is pretty juicy for me. Buckle up for a brief but devastating take down of these latest deceptions.

First of all, the report is not a new scientific study of the incidence of L. monocytogenes but rather a risk assessment that extrapolates from existing studies. This meta-analysis has a Frankenstein feel drawing from all sorts of vaguely referenced literature. The very bottom of the summary admits this adds to a “considerable uncertainty.”

As I’ve mentioned before, these heavily leaned-on existing studies are extremely flawed. They group domestic, legally made raw-milk cheese with illegal imports, or so-called “bathtub cheese.” They make no regional distinctions, even when there is evidence of high state-by-state disparity. For example, repeated and vigorous long-term testing in Vermont found “no detectable target pathogens.” Reports like this attempt to create fear through over-generalizations. The FDA wants to make the label “raw-milk” into a dirty word, when in reality safety is heavily linked to the specific farm, or even the specific state. This factor can even eclipse pasteurized or unpasteurized status.

And I’m just getting started. The report also confines itself only to Camembert—a soft cheese that, if made from raw milk, you couldn’t even legally find in America! Furthermore, the hypotheticals investigated for pasteurized milk let it off the hook almost entirely. They assume that the only pathogens present would be introduced “after the ripening phase and before packaging” and ignored any other sources. Which is odd, since this study found that for pasteurized cheese outbreaks, 35% of contaminants were introduced by bare-handed contact by a handler/worker/preparer, 31% by handling by an infected person or carrier of pathogen, 23% by storage in contaminated environment, and 19% by glove-handed contact by handler/worker/preparer. All of those things could happen outside the designated “infection period.” Those causes, by the way, affected 0% of pasteurized cheese.

Raw-milk cheese was put through the wringer, and contamination was looked at from start to finish as a sort of worst-case scenario. The kicker is that only raw-milk cheese legally must be aged 60 days, a factor that actually puts it at a higher likelihood of contracting Listeria. With no sense of irony, the study suggests lifting that ban, which exists to make raw-milk cheese safe from other pathogens like E. coli. The aging requirement probably creates the biggest dent in the data, and it only is levied against raw-milk cheese.

On top of all of this, the only scientific paper I could find that actually tests and compares Listeria in pasteurized and unpasteurized cheese concluded that pasteurized is more dangerous! The authors mention this was surprising at first, but not after they realized the poorer quality of pasteurized facilities. Perhaps this surprise comes from federal agencies stating assumptions as scientific findings. Perhaps the pasteurized facilities are less safe to begin with because the FDA publishes false reassurances every so often to demonize raw-milk cheese.

In conclusion, don’t believe the hype.

Feature Photo Credit: “No. Bureaucrat.” by Paul Ozhgibesov | Shutterstock

Robbie Herbst

Robbie Herbst is a summer editorial intern and an undergrad at Dartmouth College, where he enjoys access to the unimaginably quaint cheese-makers of the upper valley. When he isn’t writing or playing violin, he likes to take bricks of Cabot Extra Sharp Cheddar on long hikes through the White Mountains.