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.
I observed the campaign at a remove, thinking that any possible bans were years away. I could still buy at local stores raw-milk cheeses aged for more than two months. U.S. import restrictions and tariffs were menacing, but they were apparently only part of larger trade skirmishes and anyway were continually being postponed and likely to be temporary.
Then, in a matter of a few midsummer days, the future of one of my favorite American cheeses was threatened by the kind of news story that artisan cheesemakers fear will be the excuse for a fast, no-questions-asked pasteurization law. I got in a car and headed for Vermont.
TO my mind, sheep's-milk cheese puts most cow's-milk cheese to shame. (I confess to finding most goat's-milk cheese too goaty.) I cannot resist even a middling Spanish manchego or a young Sardinian or Tuscan pecorino, sheep's-milk all -- let alone the irresistible sheep's-milk ricotta, the only base for true cannolis. Starting in the early 1990s the makers of Vermont Shepherd, a young couple named Cindy and David Major, near Putney, in southern Vermont, produced a credible challenge to centuries-old European sheep's-milk cheeses. The sudden threat to their newfound achievement illustrated why the members of the Cheese of Choice Coalition claim that the FDA is "just one scare away" from imposing mandatory pasteurization.
The problem, in bare outline, began in 1996, in the northern part of the state, when a pair of enthusiastic beginners at sheep farming, with the backing of a very rich and well-meaning farmer, imported sheep from Belgium to make cheese. The sheep they selected were champion milk producers, especially in comparison with traditional breeds: the Majors and other Vermont farmers were milking sheep that had been bred for wool and meat. The milk-producing capacity of these established Vermont breeds was being improved, but importing animals that had been bred solely to produce milk seemed like a long-overdue idea.
Veterinarians from the U.S. Department of Agriculture feared that some of the imported sheep might have been given feed contaminated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the dreaded "mad-cow disease." Scrapie, a closely related disease that affects sheep's brains, has been recorded here since the 1940s, but BSE has never appeared in this country. The USDA sees its mission as eradicating any possible outbreak anywhere in its jurisdiction, and this past July it told the northern-Vermont farmers that it wanted to destroy the imported sheep and their progeny. The farmers mounted a sympathy campaign, telling the press that their children had named all the sheep; how could the government slaughter their pets? The rich backer succeeded in keeping the USDA at bay, claiming that its tests were ambiguous. As of mid-October, three months after the USDA announced its intentions, the imported sheep were still alive and in quarantine. But Vermont's long-established domestic sheep flocks were under a graver and longer-term threat if even a trace of BSE transmitted through infected feed was confirmed in a tissue sample from a single imported sheep or one of its descendants. (The journalist Emily Green, who has covered mad-cow disease for the past ten years, published a comprehensive history of the affair in the Los Angeles Times in September.)