Rumblings of raw milk regulations have put farmers on edge—but for now their controversial cash cows aren't going anywhere
Earlier this year, cheese lovers, who often view raw milk as a sacred cow, feared that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) planned to sharply limit or even ban the manufacture and sale of raw milk cheese. It would have been a loss not only for connoisseurs but also for anyone who cares about rural economies and sustainable food systems. Artisanal cheese is a big part of the solution. Fortunately, it appears that the fears were exaggerated.
The role played by cheese artisans in rural renewal was driven home to me recently when I chatted with Angela Miller, a New York literary agent who, with her architect husband, Russell Glover, bought Consider Bardwell Farm in 2000. Although it had prospered as Vermont's first dairy cooperative in the mid-1800s, the farm had suffered the fate of many once-prosperous New England dairies. For a decade prior to Miller's purchase, it had been defunct, its barns and outbuildings sitting empty, its fields ungrazed. There was talk of converting the land into a military training ground.
Catherine Donnelly has estimated that the milk from 50 cows will earn a farmer $100,000 before expenses. If the farmer makes cheese from that same milk, and he or she will net $1 million.
Today, the 300-acre farm, located in southern Vermont, provides wages that support seven families. With 100 Oberhaslis goats and 30 Jersey cows, it is a prime example of how sustainable farming practices and innovative marketing can revive the economies of rural areas. What is responsible for this change of fortune? Cheese, or to be more specific, raw milk cheese.
Consider the math. Catherine Donnelly, a professor at the University of Vermont and a director of the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese, has estimated that the milk from 50 cows will earn a farmer $100,000 before expenses, meaning that he or she would be lucky to break even, forget earn a living wage. If the farmer makes cheese from that same milk, and he or she will net $1 million.
Little wonder that artisan cheese makers like Miller became worried earlier this year when rumors began circulating in papers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was singling out raw milk cheese for particular attention on account of food safety concerns.
Following two non-fatal E. coli outbreaks in the United States in 2010 that sickened 46 people, the FDA dramatically increased its inspections of cheese-making facilities. The American Cheese Society, a trade group, reported that 74 percent of its members who responded to a survey said they had been inspected last year, up from 8 percent the previous year.
The Times and the Post speculated that the FDA was reconsidering its six-decade-old rule that allows the sale of cheese made from raw milk (milk that has not been pasteurized, a heating process that kills bacteria and other disease organisms) provided it has been aged at least 60 days. The fear was that the aging requirement might be increased substantially or that selling any cheese, no matter how well aged, that is made from raw milk would be forbidden. Artisan cheese makers claim that the heat of pasteurization destroys the enzymes and "good" bacteria that give certain cheeses their distinctive character and appeal.
As an example, Miller cites her farm's sought-after Dorset, a washed-rind raw cow's milk cheese that recently took the silver medal in the World Jersey Cheese Awards and sells to such high-end restaurants as the French Laundry, Per Se, and Jean Georges. That cheese is aged the minimum 60 days, but it has to be sold and eaten shortly afterward. By 90 days, according to Miller, it is past its prime and can take on ammonia flavors. If the FDA extends the 60-day rule, Consider Bardwell would have to pasteurize the milk for Dorset, which might make a significant difference in the flavor.
Now it appears that the fears were exaggerated. Earlier this month a delegation from the Cheese Society met in Washington, D.C., to discuss possible changes. According Nora Weiser, the society's executive director, her group was assured that "the FDA is not currently considering any rules that would change aging requirements." Rather, the agency is trying to develop a science-based risk approach to cheese making. The results of their inquiries will be published and opened to public comment later this year.
"Unless something terrible happens, it looks like we won't be forced to stop making our cheeses the way we do," said Miller, who plans to double the production of Consider Bardwell cheeses to 100,000 pounds over the next five years, allowing the once dead farm to support even more rural folk. "It's a way to enable young people to stay on the land."
Image: Consider Bardwell Farm