John Sheehan, the chief dairy bureaucrat at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Back in 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s chief dairy guy, John Sheehan (pictured left), committed himself to restricting production of raw milk cheese, stating in a national magazine: “60-day aging is largely ineffectual as a means of reducing levels of certain pathogens in cheeses. With this information in hand, FDA is now developing a risk profile for raw milk cheeses, which will aid in the Agency’s assessment of the requirements for processing these cheeses.”

Here we are, 11 years later, and John Sheehan is still the chief dairy guy at the FDA, the 60-day aging is still in place….and Sheehan is still promising to mess with it. In a new report contained in a newsletter from the American Cheese Society, the ACS says it had a director attending a meeting at the International Dairy Foods Association at which, “Sheehan stated that the agency is drafting an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) indicating the agency’s current thinking on the 60-day aging requirement for unpasteurized cheese, and he mentioned the possibility of a Performance Standard in place of the 60-day aging rule.”

Hmmm. A “Performance Standard.” What exactly does that mean?

It may not matter, because the also ACS reported that “FDA subsequently provided clarification that this has been considered, but that the leadership was embracing an approach that will involve continuing outreach to stakeholders and expanding the conversation about the aging process for soft-ripened cheeses before making any decisions about next steps.”

Sounds to me like his higher-ups were contradicting Sheehan after he suggested the FDA might be coming to a conclusion not pleasing to raw cheese producers on the 60-day aging requirement. Sheehan’s superiors were essentially saying, “Let’s talk a few more years about this 60-day aging rule.” I mean, 11 years isn’t all that long a time period in the context of a large bureaucracy, which is considering restricting a rule that has been working for going on 70 years.

What I think is going on is that the FDA, led by Sheehan, has been searching for the last nearly dozen years for an excuse, any excuse, to come down on raw-milk cheese, and hasn’t been able to get the goods. Most recently, over the last couple years, the FDA has been engaged in something it calls a “raw milk cheese sampling pilot program,” whose goal has been to analyze 1,600 raw milk cheese samples, of which about 500 were to come from domestic producers. That program is due to wrap up in a couple days, July 1, the ACS reported. According to the ACS, Sheehan reported “Listeria was found in 5 domestic samples resulting in 4 recalls.” The fact that there was no mention of illnesses means not a single individual was sickened by any of the cheese with listeria—a not uncommon occurrence, since very small amounts of listeria in food are known to not cause illness.

So, while the last time I wrote about this, I thought the FDA was getting ready to put the screws to raw-milk cheese producers, now I’m not so sure. Since no one’s getting sick from raw milk cheese, the FDA can just keep talking mumbo jumbo and creating uncertainty…and keeping its corporate processed cheese clients happy. After all, Sheehan & Co. keep getting paid and accumulating pension credits no matter how long this non-problem problem goes on. Eleven years. Twenty years. Fifty years. Who cares? Life is good.