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The Future of Raw Milk Cheese in America

Two weeks ago, news broke that Uplands Cheese would not be producing its popular Rush Creek Reserve this season. The award-winning cheese is a solid favorite around the holidays, and many loyal fans wait all year for its gooey, glorious return. So why no Rush Creek in 2015? The FDA’s unclear rules and regulations on cheesemaking, particularly those surrounding raw milk soft cheeses, made Rush Creek production too big of a risk for cheesemaker Andy Hatch:

As a cheesemaker and business owner, I have no problem with regulatory oversight — I just need to know what the rules are and how they’re going to be interpreted by the inspectors enforcing them…that clarity is what’s missing right now, and that makes the financial risks associated with these cheeses intolerable.

This unsettling news came just weeks after the FDA’s equally unclear comments regarding aging cheese on wooden boards, and it seems these incidents are unfortunately not isolated. According to Jeanne Carpenter, the FDA is also currently reviewing the 60-day aging rule for raw milk, and may increase the minimum aging time to “90 or 120 aging days within the next year.” That’s bad news for the future of Rush Creek Reserve, and many other raw milk cheeses just barely cresting the 60-day aging period currently required by law. Carpenter notes the FDA is also concerned with the levels of non-toxigenic E.Coli (the kind that doesn’t produce toxins) in raw milk cheese, and in 2010 reduced its standard from less than 10,000 to less than 10 MPN per gram:

The FDA has begun to enforce this new policy by purchasing raw milk cheeses from distributors, testing them for pathogens, and then showing up at cheese factories for a 3-day investigative inspection. Every cheesemaker I talked to says it is virtually impossible to consistently produce a raw milk cheese with less than 10 parts of non-toxigenic E. Coli per gram. Goodbye, raw milk cheese.

European imports are now beginning to feel the effects of this new policy. Many French Roquefort producers are currently on Import Alert, a status meaning the FDA has sampled the cheese, found higher-than-allowable bacteria counts, and deemed the cheese unfit for sale. Food writer Janet Fletcher explains in her newsletter:

According to the U.S. representative for Pascal Beillevaire, one of the French affineurs whose cheeses are being detained, it takes six months, five “clean” samples and a daunting application to get off the list.

Rough. Unsurprisingly, many European cheesemakers are now reluctant to ship their products to the US in fear of detainment. Cheese is a living thing, and when exported, it’s (ideally) in the best possible condition. Detainment would likely lead to spoilage, if the cheese isn’t destroyed outright to begin with. 

With the season of cheeseplates rapidly approaching, we can only hope there will be some raw milk options remaining to choose from.

Photo by Stephanie Stiavetti

Rebecca Haley-Park

Rebecca Haley-Park is culture's former editor and resident stinky cheese cheerleader. A native New Englander, she holds a BFA in creative writing from University of Maine at Farmington.