For more than a decade, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has had an undeclared war on raw milk cheese, until this week, when the FDA finally beat a retreat.
At the conclusion of its latest assault against raw milk cheese–a research study of more than 1,600 cheese samples to test for pathogens–the FDA made this remarkable admission: “The data collected by the FDA indicate that the prevalences of Salmonella and pathogenic Shiga toxin- producing E. coli are relatively low and similar to the contamination rates in many other foods.” I added the emphasis, just to highlight the significance of that statement. The FDA has never before gone so far as to suggest that a raw-milk product is as safe as “many other foods.” Instead, the FDA and its buddies at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have gone out of their way to foment fear about raw milk products of any kind, warning people not to consume them under any circumstances.
The FDA’s only concern about raw milk cheese, and this is a small concern in the context of FDA reactions, involves listeria monocytogenes. Because it found the pathogen in more raw milk cheese samples than the E.coli O157:H7 and salmonella (but still less than one per cent of the total sample), it stated that “Listeria monocytogenes prevalence, especially in semi-soft cheese, remains a concern and the agency will be actively working with industry to address strategies to significantly minimize or prevent contamination.”
The listeria situation was minor enough for the agency to declare: “In light of the findings, the FDA does not anticipate additional large- scale sampling of raw milk cheese…” This is the FDA’s way of saying that, as hard as it searched for pathogens in raw milk cheese, it essentially came up empty, and it is throwing in the towel on taking down raw milk cheese, at least for the time being.
Raw milk cheese has been sanctioned by the FDA since the late 1940s, so long as it is aged at least 60 days. The raw milk cheese assault began back in 2005, when FDA dairy chief John Sheehan declared that the agency was concerned about contamination from cheese made from unpasteurized milk and suggesting that the 60-day aging rule wasn’t sufficient to reduce risks from pathogens. He then directed several efforts over the course of the next ten-plus years to make his case, including widespread inspections of American Cheese Society members in 2010 and a highly theoretical, and flawed, study concluding raw milk cheese was 50 to 160 times more risky for listeriosis than pasteurized milk cheese. All have failed to make the case Sheehan and his cronies at the FDA so badly wanted—that raw milk cheese is a high-risk food, requiring serious restrictions on production and distribution, including abandoning the simple 60-day aging rule.
This latest effort to discredit raw milk cheese commenced in 2014, when the FDA told the American Cheese Society that it would test at least 1,700 samples of raw milk cheese from organization members and foreign producers. As it turned out, over the next two years, the FDA tested a little more than 1,600 samples.
According to the FDA’s summary about the study, “As planned, the FDA collected 1,606 raw milk cheese samples (exceeding its target by 6 samples). The FDA designed its sampling plan such that if contamination of one percent or greater was present in the commodity, the agency would detect it. The agency closely monitored the assignment to gather lessons learned and make changes to the sampling if needed to address trends or food safety issues.
“Of the 1,606 raw milk cheese samples collected and tested, 473 samples (29 percent) were domestic samples, and 1,133 samples (71 percent) were of international origin. The FDA sought to design its sampling plan to approximate the ratio of domestically made versus imported product on the U.S. market but was unable to do so in this case because the federal government does not track production volume of raw milk cheese. Details on the assignment design are provided in the Sample Collection section of this report.
“The FDA tested samples for the presence of the pathogens Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli O157:H7 and Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, as well as for generic E. coli. The overall contamination rate for each of the pathogens was less than one percent, and the overall contamination rate for generic E. coli was 5.4 percent. While the prevalence for generic E. coli was comparatively high, it bears mention that it rarely causes illness even as it may signal insanitary processing conditions.
“Because the contamination frequencies among the pathogens were below one percent, the FDA was limited in its ability to detect differences in contamination rates based on the type of cheese or its origins (i.e., domestic vs. import), even with the large number of samples.”
To those food safety types who might object to the FDA conclusions based on discovering even a single example of the presence of pathogens, the agency noted that it couldn’t find even one illness from the handful of cheese samples with pathogens.
This latest report should put the kibosh on the FDA’s efforts to tighten rules on raw milk cheese, which prompted opposition late last year from a number of prominent politicians. But as we’ve learned over a number of years, you can never count the FDA out in its desire to rid the country of raw milk products.