In the 1850s, several New York dairies were caught in what reporters dubbed the “swill milk” scandal. Dairy cows were being fed grain distillation remnants and kept in awful conditions; their milk was off-color and diseased, but producers would mix it with chalk and flour and sell it as pure. The practice led to the deaths of about 8,000 children, causing a crisis that eventually led to pasteurization becoming the norm in the dairy industry. Though some complained that the process of heating milk to kill off harmful bacteria also killed off the flavor, most accepted it as a necessary sacrifice to make for public health. Raw milk is making a bit of a comeback, but the CDC still warns against it.
The American cheese industry is booming, and for the first time ever, an American cheese was named the best in the world at the World Cheese Awards. However, according to professor and food scientist Catherine Donnelly in her in her new book, Ending the War on Artisan Cheese, the industry is under threat. The fear of unpasteurized milk has spilt over into a fear of unpasteurized cheese, which affects traditional cheesemaking methods. The FDA currently rules that any cheese produced in the U.S. either has to be made from pasteurized milk, or be held for 60 days, with the idea that harmful bacteria will die out in that time. Donnelly argues these rules hurt traditional and artisan cheesemakers, and aren’t based in science—which regularly shows that cheese made from unpasteurized milk is safe to consume. In an interview with Eater, Donnelly spoke about the government overreach threatening America’s artisanal cheese industry, and what it will take to get Americans to trust raw milk cheese. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Eater: You talk a lot about how the U.S. is a really fast-growing market for specialty, artisanal cheeses and raw cheeses, something we saw demonstrated when an American-made cheese won the World Cheese Awards for the first time. To what do you attribute this growth?
Catherine Donnelly: I think consumer tastes are changing. People of my generation, you just went and purchased what was available and didn’t really have high expectations. [Now] we’re dealing with fairly affluent consumers who are well-traveled. I mean, the questions that young people have about products and where they come from, I think artisan cheese offers a solution to those obsessed foodies. It’s exactly what they’re looking for: Something that’s locally produced, and it’s handcrafted, and it’s high-quality. And I also think that consumers are willing to pay the price for these products. And then the whole interplay of sustainability, supporting agriculture, and buying local, all of those themes feed into artisan cheese and help explain its growth trajectory.
There still is this great fear of raw milk. You make a good case that raw cheese, when produced well, is as safe if not safer than a lot of industrially produced cheese. But there are people are still afraid of “raw.”
When you look at cheesemaking, a product starts from raw milk, but it doesn’t finish with raw milk. I always explain that cheese is processed for safety. You’re using bacterial cultures to lower the pH to the point where, in certain cheeses, pathogens can’t grow. You’re doing heat treatment of curds in many of the different cheese families. So that gives an equivalent level of safety if the product were made from pasteurized milk.
And the other important thing is it isn’t just any raw milk that’s obtained and made into cheese. There are careful standards that cheesemakers pay attention to because if they don’t start out with the best quality raw materials, they’re not going to end up with a good cheese. Paying attention to the microbiological quality of the raw milk is really, really critical. The raw milk, the starting material, has to be of good quality or you’re not going to have a sellable product.
You mention a couple of studies that found most outbreaks of milk-related illness came from pasteurized products, and basically make the argument that the FDA is ignoring a lot of science and best practices in order to favor the industrial cheesemaking industry. Why would they do that?
Who has the ear of the FDA when regulations are being promulgated? It isn’t the small, rural farm people who have a seat at the table, influencing policy. It’s the large, multinational corporations who are looking at their bottom line and profit. If those voices are having input on regulations, there isn’t a holistic approach for the FDA to look at something other than a one-size-fits-all approach to regulations. Cheese makers have no market for their product if it’s contaminated and they’re making their customers sick. But I would argue that a small-scale producer has much more control over the safety of that process than some of these large-scale industrial plants, where there are lots of post-pasteurization processes like shredding, and cutting, and repackaging, and lots of opportunities for exposure to contamination. That’s why we see more outbreaks associated with industrially processed products, as opposed to artisan.
I think that it’s easy to have that knee-jerk reaction of “Oh my God, raw milk cheese, it must be unsafe.” But there are controls in the artisan process. We know there are, and our science supports that. And I think that some of those controls are actually harder when you’re looking at a massive industrial scale where much of the shredding equipment, the cutting equipment, it’s difficult to clean and sanitize. You’ve got lots of employees that can introduce contamination.
Where are we right now in terms of regulations for raw milk cheese? What do producers have to do?
Producers, number one, have to monitor their processing environment for listeria. Listeria is an organism that has a really high mortality rate. It can kill people. And in certain cheeses [especially soft cheeses] that will support its growth, you must control that pathogen in the processing environment. We recognize listeria as an environmental pathogen, so testing to make sure that the pathogen isn’t in the environment is a really important thing to do. And then beyond that, just checks of the incoming raw milk to make sure that you’re not dealing with pathogens in the raw material, making sure that you’re monitoring your process and meeting your target.
The problem is the FDA has given cheesemakers one of two options. You can either pasteurize your milk for cheesemaking or you can hold it for 60 days. The rules were promulgated in 1949, when cheddar was the main cheese being produced in the United States. As cheddar cheese ages over 60 days, then the pH starts dropping because of some of the starter culture bacteria. Well, fast forward to 2019 when we’re making a lot of soft-ripened and washed-rind cheeses. Holding those cheeses for 60 days, if there’s any kind of post-process contamination from listeria, it’s going to be at really high levels in those products. Unfortunately, the code of federal regulations for soft-ripened cheese [doesn’t take that into consideration]. Our federal regulations apply to [soft cheese], and it shouldn’t.
You support a proposal right now that would make the USDA, not the FDA, the sole overseer of food safety, and argue that this will solve the problem of government overreach. How do we know the sweet spot between overreach and, on the other side, neglect?
At the end of the day, we all want safe food. And that’s a consumer expectation, especially for these artisan products that are pretty pricey, they’ve got to be safe. The reach of the FDA is so broad, and in the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was the most sweeping reform of our food safety legislation, you see a lot of rule-making coming out of the agency that indicates, at least for me, that these rules were written by people that didn’t really understand how some foods were produced. Versus the USDA; that’s where our national repository of knowledge on how we produce foods resides.
When you look at small-scale food producers in the country, feeding that whole local foods movement, that’s what consumers are demanding now. The FDA is not equipped to deal with all the small mom-and-pops distributed around the country. Their job as an agency is a lot easier if they deal with the 20 biggest food companies. So how are they equipped to deal with some of these small-scale producers? Well, you could write regulations to regulate these small companies out of business, or you could figure out how to get education into the hands of the small-scale producers like we do through extension programs at universities.
Most cheesemakers are inspected by their state agencies in addition to federal regulators. I think USDA would be better equipped to work with states to put in place regulations that really are going to address some of the safety needs. Whether it’s cheesemaking, or produce, or anything else.
There’s this conversation that keeps coming up, encouraging people to adopt more of a vegan diet to help save the planet. Has that push affected the American artisan cheese industry at all?
So much of the advice that we’re given as consumers as to what we should do is driven by marketing arms of companies. When we were a small-scale farm economy here in the United States, small-scale farms were pretty sustainable. I can show you operations in Vermont where they are 100% recycling everything that’s being used. And consider the role of ruminant [animals] in our whole ecosystem, which are able to eat materials that humans can’t digest and then produce byproducts that go and help that whole cycle again.
There’s a theme in your book about education and how Europe populations have the advantage of understanding how food is made, and sort of inherently trusts it. What do you think it’ll take for America, in a mainstream way, to trust raw milk cheese?
I spend my time on a college campus. Our students are interested in food systems, wanting to know every detail about how something is produced, and where it’s from, and how it compares to other products that are out there. We’re already seeing the marketplace respond to that. So I think that education is just a normal part of the consumer base for these products, for all food products. And we’re just getting started with that. I wonder if our regulators are keeping pace with those changes that we see on the ground here in academia.
The dairy industry is in such crisis nationally, and I’ve long viewed artisan cheese as a way to help us to return to that small farm culture. It’s exciting to see, and I don’t get the same sense of despair about dairy futures when I meet with my friends who are artisan cheesemakers that I do when I’m meeting with conventional dairy processors that produce milk. There’s a declining market and the disappearance of farms all over our country is really alarming. I hope we can all rally and create a future for our working landscape here in America that has been ignored for a long time.