ALL year the talk at any gathering of people who care about artisan-made foods has turned to the threat to raw-milk cheeses. This seemingly abstruse subject is of the utmost importance to anyone who cares about cheese -- real cheese, which suggests the grass, the earth, and the air of the place where it was made. Losing the chance to make and buy raw-milk cheese would mean losing most of the world's great cheeses. It would mean no more Parmigiano-Reggiano, the king of cheeses; no more farmhouse Cheddar from England or Vermont; no more true Swiss cheese (Gruyère) or Roquefort.
It's hard to engage non-food people in urgent talk about raw milk, which seems like a dangerous relic of the pre-Pasteur past. It's even harder to get people to try a sip, as I discovered on a visit to Martha's Vineyard last summer, which began with stops at local farms to collect ingredients for a reunion lunch. One of the farms was a state-certified raw-milk dairy, and after lunch I proudly passed around a creamer full of raw whole milk to go with coffee. My friends, who I knew loved milk, suddenly decided that they'd really always preferred their coffee black.
I couldn't blame them. But I happen to trust raw milk instinctively, having grown up in a dairy-farming town, and I remember as one of the greatest treats imaginable the tea a family friend served with milk warm from the cow. Fear of fresh food seems to mount by the day, however, fueled by often-misleading reports. The fight I think worth fighting is not for raw "fluid" milk, as fresh milk is called, but for cheese made with raw milk, which concentrates its subtle flavors.
Great cheese has always been made with raw milk, and until World War II almost all American cheese was made with it. Disease outbreaks traceable to aged cheese have historically been rare, because the lactic acid in milk and the salt used to flavor and preserve cheese kill most harmful bacteria. Pasteurization for fluid milk has been the rule for a century, but the use of raw milk in American cheese was so normal that no law regulating it existed until 1949, when experienced cheesemakers were in short supply. That year a law was written requiring that cheese made with raw milk be aged a minimum of sixty days at 35°F -- the time and temperature then considered sufficient to kill most harmful bacteria, such as salmonella, listeria, and E. coli; the sixty-day rule was eventually extended to imported cheese. Over time more than forty states, particularly those with big cheese industries, passed laws requiring pasteurization for cheeses aged less than sixty days. But real, raw-milk cheese has increasingly flourished in states associated with craft, including Vermont, Wisconsin, New York, and California.
The loose regulatory system held until 1998, when a trade group representing industrial American cheese proposed that all U.S. cheese, fresh and aged, be defined by law as beginning with pasteurized milk. This makes perfect sense for a cheese factory, which produces tens of thousands of pounds of cheese a day and combines tanks of milk from dozens of dairies, whose cleanliness the factory can't possibly monitor. It makes no sense for an individual cheesemaker who works with milk from his or her own small herd of cows, sheep, or goats, and whose goal is to produce the best cheese possible. Pasteurization equipment is very expensive, and is unnecessary if the dairy follows sensible sanitation guidelines. The American Cheese Society, which represents artisan cheesemakers, worried that this salvo might presage an all-out war against raw milk. It formed a committee to oppose mandatory pasteurization.
Little more was heard of the cheese-industry proposal, but rumors that the government might clamp down began to spread in the fall of last year, after the Food and Drug Administration notified the American Cheese Society that it was looking into whether pathogens in raw-milk cheese are able to survive the sixty days of aging. If the results seem to warrant action, the FDA could require pasteurization for all cheese -- both domestic and imported. Such a decision was years off, the FDA said reassuringly of this alarming prospect; the preliminary study was only part of an understandable updating of a fifty-year-old law.
Battle lines were drawn. Distinctive artisan-made cheeses hardly repay farmers as it is. Mandatory pasteurization would mean the end of a fledgling movement in this country toward cheeses made by hand with milk from one herd. It would also end imports of indispensable cheeses.
Defenders and sellers of raw-milk cheese, by nature not a contentious lot, decided that the time had come to speak out. Last spring the American Cheese Society joined forces with Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, a nonprofit activist "brain trust" in Boston that is dedicated to sustainable agriculture and traditional foods. The resulting Cheese of Choice Coalition is trying to forestall new laws by proposing that artisan cheesemakers follow the stringent safety practices in government-monitored HACCP (hazard analysis critical control points) guidelines, which have already been widely adopted by European cheesemakers; the Clinton Administration has imposed HACCP on the meat, poultry, and seafood industries.
The CCC began mounting petition campaigns and staging "awareness events," where free chunks of cheese are deemed more effective weapons than placards and picket lines. (To add your name to the list, consult www.oldwayspt.org.) Campaign brochures handed out along with cheese enumerate the health and flavor benefits of unpasteurized milk, and also point out that many publicized disease outbreaks linked to cheese have been traced to unaged Mexican-style mild white cheeses illegally produced in home kitchens -- sometimes starting with pasteurized milk. Pasteurized milk, in fact, can be more vulnerable to pathogens than raw milk, the CCC warns, because it has been robbed of its natural disease-resisting bacteria.