Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is leading a Congressional campaign to overturn a new FDA rule that could lead to many raw milk cheese producers being put out of business.

In the 11 long years it’s taken the FDA’s dairy chief, John Sheehan, to concoct a program to rid the U.S. of raw milk cheese, the product has become extremely popular around the country. So popular that it is an industry unto itself in a number of states, like Oregon, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin. Senators and representatives of those states are very upset that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is close to adopting new regulations to put a clamp on raw milk cheese production, and could well put small cheese producers out of business, and hurt their states’ economies.

Basically, what the FDA has done in recent weeks is establish a new standard for raw milk cheese that severely limits the amount of benign E.coli that is naturally occurring in many such cheeses.

According to a joint letter from nine senators and fifteen representatives, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, to deputy FDA commissioner Michael Taylor, “The new standard will severely limit the production of raw milk cheeses across the country. Such a drastic step would only be justified were these cheeses presenting a demonstrable public health risk, which, to date, we have not seen evidence of.” They cite “leading food safety scientists” who say that monitoring such E.coli “has no value in mitigating the risk of raw milk cheese pathogens of greatest concern.”

The FDA campaign, despite a near-absence of serious illnesses from such cheese, is something I’ve warned about repeatedly in recent years as the FDA has carried out its witch hunt to effectively ban raw milk cheese, apparently because it has become significant competition to the multibillion-dollar established pasteurized cheese industry. John Sheehan, the leader of the 11-year campaign to regulate raw milk cheese out of existence, was a Quality Control Manager for pizza cheese maker Leprino Foods Co. prior to joining the FDA.

A few raw milk cheese producers have expressed similar concern about the FDA’s campaign. The head of Jasper Hill cheese, Mateo Kehler, said recently in a letter to the FDA: “Over the past 10 years Jasper Hill has been a leader in a quickly growing segment of the dairy industry that represents hundreds of millions of dollars of potential growth for domestic processors over the next decade. Jasper Hill is an innovator dedicated to the production of safe cheese and provides operational and financial services to a network of award winning artisan cheesemakers across northern Vermont and New Hampshire. The FDA policy on non-toxigenic E.coli outlined in the current CPG does not correlate with any known safety benefit, nor is it necessarily related to insanitary conditions or filth.”

The senators and representatives explain further in their letter to Taylor: “As you know, cheese production is an important, and growing, component of our nation’s value-added agricultural economy. It is an economic driver in rural areas across the country, producing good jobs, internationally-recognized brands, and award-winning cheeses….The new FDA standard for non-toxigenic E.coli levels in raw milk cheeses threatens to halt the growth of the raw milk cheese industry. As you know, FDA has reduced the amount of allowable non-toxigenic E.coli in cheeses from 10,000 most probable number (MPN)/gram in 2009 to 10 MPN/gram under the new standard. While we understand a more stringent standard may be appropriate for cheese made from pasteurized or heat-treated milk, the application of new E.coli standards to raw milk cheeses is inconsistent with internationally-recognized microbiological guidance established by the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods (ICMSF).”

The political representatives conclude with a number of questions to the FDA: “Why did the FDA feel a more stringent E.coli standard for raw milk cheese was warranted? What evidence exists to demonstrate that raw milk cheeses produced under current practices place public health at risk?”

Good questions. Unfortunately, the FDA will come back with mumbo jumbo answers and data implying that raw milk cheese is potentially dangerous. Hopefully, the politicians will have experts available to examine the FDA’s answers closely and carefully. If they don’t, then the FDA’s long plotting against raw milk cheese may well achieve its original goal.