Liberty & Raw Milk

Recent articles in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal focused on raw milk cheeses — those made with unpasteurized milk. Much of the discussion has focused on a federal rule requiring a cheese made from unpasteurized milk to be aged 60 days before it can be sold to consumers.

The Food and Drug Administration has done a study on the matter and many insiders believe it will recommend a change in the rule very soon. That probably makes sense. The rule was established based on 1940’s research done after some typhoid outbreaks linked to hard cheeses such as Cheddar. Researchers noted that as these kinds of cheeses age, they lose moisture, and that makes them less friendly to bacteria.

The 60-day period was arbitrary even then, and typhoid is not a major food-safety concern today. Now we worry about E. coli 0157:H7 and listeria. The diversity of American cheeses, imports and consumption are vast, with many cheeses unlike the hard cheeses tested in the 1940s. In fact, some research has shown that fresh cheeses are most healthy when eaten young before bacteria can grow.

The great fear is the FDA will overreact and, instead of accommodating this diversity, will take an absolutist point of view, perhaps banning raw milk cheese altogether. This would be a shame. After all, raw milk cheeses are eaten all over Europe without significant food-safety problems.

Modern technology can find ways to make all foods safer. David Gremmels, co-owner of Rogue Creamery in Oregon and former president of the American Cheese Society, suggested to The Times that the industry is willing to accept testing of milk, dairies, and finished product to enhance safety.

Perhaps the bigger question is whether the government should really interfere in what consenting adults put in their mouths. This is not a major public health problem and the tolerance of risk is different for different people.

Nothing stops consumers from buying cheese made only from pasteurized milk; some consumers have been lucky enough to visit the local market in Provence and buy a fresh Gardian, sold in its whey and drizzled with herbs and olive oil. The cheese is all of one day old. Having tasted something so incredible, they choose to consume such cheeses.

Some people eat a rare hamburger, though there are risks. Some eat fresh vegetables rather than cooked, though there are risks. Life involves risks. Is it really the place of the FDA to deny consumers a conscious choice when it comes to cheese?