April 18th was the inaugural Raw Milk Cheese appreciation day, a celebration of a category of cheeses that many Americans shy away from. I, however, am a raw milk cheese aficionado, and wish that every cheese could be made from raw milk—the flavor that is preserved when milk isn’t put through the harsh process of pasteurization is so important, especially for fresh, delicate cheeses. We have Louis Pasteur to thank for this loss of flavor, because his invention not only kills harmful bacteria, but also kills the majority of natural bacteria in milk that produce great, safe flavor in cheese.
Now, I’m not saying that pasteurized milk cheeses are all bad; plenty of work has been done to make up for the flavor that is lost in pasteurized milk, and some incredible cheeses are made from pasteurized milk. However, the big problem with pasteurization in the United States is that the FDA has enacted laws making raw milk cheeses aged less than 60 days illegal. This means that cheese makers have to rethink the cheeses that they make and the way that they make them in order to follow this law. The FDA does this to avoid foodborne illnesses that can be spread through unpasteurized milk. Does it really make us all that much safer, though?
In 2012, the CDC released a report on foodborne illnesses in the United States. There were 843 foodborne illness outbreaks in total; out of these, 12 outbreaks were due to unpasteurized dairy products. Outbreaks of foodborne illnesses from raw milk cheeses are very rare, because producers who are working with raw milk know to be careful. Not only do producers take care with the safety of their raw milk cheese so as not want to harm others, but they also have personal interest in the safety of their cheese; if their product were to cause harm to consumers, their business would be done for.
Some people claim that the danger of raw milk cheese is not worth it. It is true that foodborne illnesses can be very dangerous, and even deadly; however, we take a much bigger risk traveling in a car, crossing the street, or, frankly, eating at McDonalds. The real issue in food and environmental safety in the United States is the factory farm system that we rely so heavily on, a system that would not be possible without pasteurization. Is the FDA truly working to keep Americans safe by outlawing raw milk cheeses, or are they instead working to please the corporations behind factory farmed products, who would rather the American public continue to support consume their food rather than locally, sustainably produced, delicious products? I, for one, would rather risk my health by eating raw milk chevre (the kind I’ll be making every day soon in France!) than risk it by putting Kraft American Singles on my USDA verified 100% factory farmed ground beef burger.