Some Like It Raw
What is raw cheese and should I even eat it?
Raw cheese is just a synonym for unpasteurized cheese. Pasteurized cheese refers to cheese made with milk that has been treated with heat. The FDA strictly governs the process (how long and how hot) for pasteurizing milk, and they also strictly govern standards concerning cheese made from unpasteurized milk, aka raw cheese. The FDA bans raw milk cheese in the United States unless it’s been aged for over 60 days. This means that most of the soft cheese you eat stateside, such as Brie and fresh goat’s milk cheeses are, by law, pasteurized cheeses, but you can easily find Cheddar, Pecorino or Manchego made from raw milk that’s perfectly legal and delicious.
If you travel to almost anywhere in Europe, you will find all sorts of cheeses, even young, fresh cheeses, made with raw milk. In fact, in many parts of Europe, it is illegal to make certain cheeses from pasteurized milk. True Camembert (thin: small Brie) that is labeled AOC or Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée, the French seal of certification, must be made with raw milk and aged less than 60 days, meaning that true Camembert is banned in the United States.
Why the regulation?
There are several pathogens associated with raw milk cheese, but the most common one is Listeria monocytogenes, which can causes Listeriosis, a disease that most healthy people can fight off quickly, but can lead to death in the young, the elderly, and the frail. Listeriosis can also lead to miscarriage, which is why many doctors recommend that pregnant women avoid raw cheese. Listeria monocytogenes is also found in processed meats, prepackaged salads and many other foods, even almond milk, so don’t think that your dairy alternatives are necessarily any better. Don’t freak out yet – more on this in a bit.
So if raw cheese is potentially more dangerous, why even make or eat it?
There are three compelling reasons to make, and for most people to enjoy, raw cheese:
Raw milk cheese is steeped in tradition. Pasteurization of milk wasn’t even invented until the 19th century, so for the majority of cheese styles, the only way to make the authentic version is to use raw milk. Food can be largely about culture and history, which brings us back to European laws that mandate certain cheeses be made with raw milk, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano and Roquefort. If you want to taste the real deal, you’re going to have to eat raw cheese.
Pasteurization is indiscriminate in killing bacteria, meaning the process kills off bad bacteria, but a lot of good bacteria don’t survive either. Therefore pasteurized cheese might not be as complex because you just can’t have the diversity of microbes that culture the cheese into all its deliciousness, because that’s what cheese is: milk with a lot of molds.
In pasteurized cheese, you lose the sense of place, or terroir: the good bacteria that die in pasteurization are specific to the land, the time of year, and the weather. The exact same cheese made in two different locations will taste different. But they’ll taste just a bit more alike if they’re both pasteurized. Try raw to experience the hills of Piedmont, the pastures of the Loire Valley, or the lush nature in Chester County.
How risky is raw cheese really?
Well, this is a complex question, and as you can see, there is much disagreement: for example, between U.S. regulating bodies and European ones, or even U.S. doctors and European ones. There are many studies on food safety, and it is true that certain foods are higher risk, such as raw milk cheese, high-moisture cheese, meat, prepackaged salads, and many other foods. What is clear, however, is that the 60-day rule on raw milk is not based on specific research. The rule was developed in 1949 based on research solely on Cheddar. Every cheese style ripens differently, and each style of cheese’s acidity level, moisture content, and microbial makeup will mean that its risk for carrying pathogens is very different.
It must be noted that our nation’s dairy lobby is extremely powerful/well funded. Big Dairy is categorically against raw milk anything, and Big Dairy generally gets what it wants. One could see their position as a concern for public safety. One could also view their position as being anti-artisan and pro-industrial; the more that people eat traditionally made cheese, the more that demand will switch away from industrial cheeses.
How to decide?
Here’s an analogy that may guide you in determining your own position on raw milk cheese: you would likely order the beef tartare at Vetri, but not at McDonald’s, or the sushi at Royal Izakaya, but not at Red Lobster. Either way, you’re eating raw food, but you (reasonably) trust certain places to take precautions to handle raw food safely.
Much of food safety is about taking the time to sanitize, record procedures, test for pathogens, and control your systems to create disease-free environments. At a small creamery, the few employees have their eyes and hands on every single wheel of cheese. They can tell you what happened to each batch because they had to be present throughout the entire process. Large, industrial creameries don’t have the same human oversight. Raw milk requires some extra care, so buy your raw milk cheese from a place that takes care of its products and processes. So it is quite safe to eat raw milk cheese from an artisan creamery that feeds their cows a clean diet, gives them space, and takes extra precautions in their dairy. In fact, creameries that use raw milk must take extra safety measures to keep their cheese safe.
It’s not as if pasteurized cheeses can’t ever become contaminated. In fact, while pasteurized cheese might naturally be less likely to become contaminated, a creamery producing only pasteurized cheeses is neither legally required to take the same care when making their cheese, nor might they feel obligated to; whereas a raw milk facility is held to both legal and societal standards to take extra care and keep you safe.
In American retail stores, cheeses are required to be labeled as raw or pasteurized. At Tria, you can be sure whether a cheese is raw or pasteurized by the marking P or R next to its name. We know many of the cheesemakers on our menus, and we know that they invest in the research to bring you the highest quality product, both in terms of deliciousness and safety. So try some raw milk cheese next time and taste the terroir.
Note: This should not be construed as medical advice. Please consult a doctor before altering your diet.
Claire Adler, ACS CCP