Well, surprise, surprise, no one came forward to take up my challenge to explore the data on illnesses from raw milk cheese during the period after 2005. In my Feb. 6 post about the big push by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to trash the minimum 60-day aging requirement for raw milk cheese, I issued this challenge: “I didn’t have a chance to explore the years 2006-2010, but I’d love to see that data. Do the germophobes have the guts to do that, and assess all the data?”

It turns out not to be a huge deal to go through the data. It’s just tedious, and you see reenforced again and again the notion that pretty much any food can cause illness–burritos, guacamole, clams, fried rice, macaroni and cheese. You name it, and it gets people sick, sometimes in big numbers. In the summer of 2008, 104 people in Alaska got sick from campylobacter in green peas–maybe celebrating the great weather…err, probably not…they wouldn’t be celebrating with green peas. But I digress.

If you’ll remember, the data I had from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control covered 33 years 1973-2005. For subsequent years, I turned to the CDC’s online database, which goes up through 2008, or another three years. (Another, more accessible resource laying out a table of illnesses that includes cheese, and goes through 2007, is available here.)

If one of the FDA’s apologists had taken up my offer, they would have been able to play a little bit of “gotcha,” because there were more illnesses from raw milk cheese during those three years than in the entire 33 years before. Interestingly, there were also a comparable number of illnesses from pasteurized cheese. 

So, in considering the entire 36-year period, 1973-2008, here is what I came up with:

* Remarkably, from 1973 to 1999,a period of 16 years, there’s not a single report of illness from either raw milk or pasteurized milk cheeses.

* It’s only in 2000 that we see the first illnesses from raw milk cheese–one outbreak that sickened 18, then two outbreaks in 2001 leading to 31 illnesses, and one outbreak sickening 18 in 2003.

* Thereafter, the pace of illnesses picks up, though in sporadic fashion. After no illnesses were reported in 2004 and 2005, the data in 2006 show 121 illnesses from raw milk cheese (from three outbreaks), and in 2007, the number increased to 159 (from four outbreaks). Then, there were no reported illnesses in 2008.

* Interestingly, illnesses from pasteurized milk cheese began showing up in recent years as well. In 2006, there were 41 illnesses from pasteurized milk cheese, and 161 in 2007. In 2008, there were 45 from pasteurized milk cheese.

Pulling it all together, the CDC data show 348 illnesses from raw milk cheese over the nine years from 2000-2008, or an average of 39 per year. (If you average the number out over the entire 36-year period, the average goes down to nine per year.) While there were fewer illnesses from pasteurized milk cheeses during that same nine-year period–247–there was one death.

What does it all mean? Well, certainly the growing popularity of raw milk cheeses must have some bearing on the situation. The American Cheese Society, which was only started in 1983 and has since grown to more than 1,400 members, figures more than half of its 300 cheese producer members specialize in raw milk cheeses. 

With fast growth can come pressure to rapidly increase production, and perhaps some cheese producers cut corners to get product out.  The American Cheese Society is working to aggressively encourage its members to adopt HACCP plans (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) to reduce the chances of illness.

While the trend isn’t what anyone would like, in either the raw milk or pasteurized milk cheese arenas, neither seems a serious public health threat.

It also seems clear that the 60-day aging rule isn’t necessarily the critical factor in cheese safety. Safety may have more to do with the conditions under which cheese is produced. I participated in an interesting discussion on the Marler blog about this subject, in which several people made this point.

It might make sense for the FDA to replace the 60-day aging requirement with some sensible production and safety standards for cheese makers…but that assumes we’re talking about an agency run by sensible people with a true concern for safety, and without a political agenda that involves ridding the world of raw milk. That’s why it’s reasonable to assume the FDA will use the sporadic illnesses over the last few years as the basis of fear mongering, and a ban on raw milk cheese…and no action on pasteurized milk cheese.

A ban would serve the FDA’s likely true concern, with is more about money and market share. From that perspective, Steve Bemis, a member of the board of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, may have put it best when he wrote last fall about the financial threat posed to the agribusiness cheese industry by fast-growing sales of raw milk cheese: “FDA tactics now emphasizing cheese can mean only one thing:  The ante is upped; we’re talking many millions of dollars simply for more cheese on pizza, in a total milk market measured in multiple billions. For an industry built on the altar of fractionalizing and homogenization, requiring pasteurization, the bottom line is simple:  cheese is serious, and must be protected at all costs from the ravages of raw products that thumb their noses not just at homogenization, but at the economic lynchpin, pasteurization.”