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Translating the Microbiology of Cheese

Cheese recalls span from imported traditional cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano to domestically made process cheeses such as Velveeta. While not all cheese recalls are due to microbial contamination, this type of contamination is the one that stirs the imagination of the public and the action of the FDA. Microbial contamination of cheese is what spurred the recent (and controversial) FDA statements on banning wooden shelves from the cheesemaking process (these statements were quickly amended). 

While the recent hubbub about bacteria and cheesemaking focused on contamination from external sources, cheeses made from raw, unpasteurized milk have been under scrutiny for decades. Raw milk is not heated and therefore contains natural bacteria such as Lactobacilus, the bacteria responsible for converting the lactose present in milk into the tangy lactic acid found in cheese. However, raw milk can grow less friendly, more dangerous bacteria if mishandled. Because of worries over public health, the US government has long banned the sale of domestic or imported raw milk cheeses aged for fewer than 60 days and is currently considering even tighter regulations.

Lately cheesemakers and regulators have been looking towards France for guidance on the production of raw milk cheeses. As opposed to US and English cheesemakers who must sterilize all cheesemaking equipment and pasteurize their milk, the French go a different route: encouraging the growth of good bacteria in order to prevent bad bacteria from taking hold. According to a recent article on NPR’s The Salt blog, a technical French government manual on the microbiology of cheese may be hiding some of the legendary secrets of cheesemaking, such as how to harness good, flavorful microbes to block out the bad, sickness-inducing ones. This manual is so crucial that Bronwen Percival, a cheese buyer for Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, is launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise $20,000 so it can be translated into English. 

“Instead of having a war of annihilation on microbes, we should be working with them,” Percival says.

She first heard of the concept at an artisan cheese conference in England two years ago. A French scientist brought over the book and discussed how protecting the biodiversity of raw milk microbes could actually make the cheese safer. “Her presentation was pretty electrifying,” Percival says.

Our hope? That once it’s translated we can get our hands on a copy!


Photo Credit: Featured image by Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP/Getty Images via NPR.org

Erica Mixon

Erica Mixon is an editorial intern at Culture. Mixon is also the arts editor of Emerson College's student-run newspaper, the Berkeley Beacon, and editor in chief of an upcoming human resources blog, HRTalentManagement. While Erica is not editing or writing, she enjoys spending time in her hometown of Ogunquit, Maine.

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