It’s been more than a year since the FDA announced a year-long “pilot program” to examine 1600 samples from producers of raw milk cheese, to check for the presence of pathogens. 


Actually, it’s inaccurate to say the FDA announced anything. Rather, it communicated to the American Cheese Society the news about this pilot program, and the ACS has dribbled out news about the program to its members. The ACS’s possessiveness about this important program seems in keeping with the “special relationship” ACS has evolved with FDA (quotes are mine). 


Without getting into the appropriateness of the very close FDA-ACS relationship, I’ll say that it looks as if the program should be wrapping up, or possibly even has wrapped up, based on the original timetable indicating the pilot program was a 2014 event. 


So, what are the results? Where does the program fit in with the FDA’s years-long analyses and investigations, all seemingly designed to narrow the 60-day aging rule on raw milk cheese, or even eliminate raw-milk cheese entirely? 


As I indicated, the ACS, which includes many artisanal producers of raw-milk cheese among its members, has been dribbling out communication between it and the FDA. I have gained access to a number of FDA and ACS communications to its members, and here is some of what we now know about the mysterious “pilot program” on raw-milk cheese: 


  • The cheese-sampling pilot program seems to have been launched at least partly because of complaints in 2009 by the huge dairy processing industry, which was concerned about supposed favoritism granted raw dairy producers under a seemingly minor rule regarding the amount of non-toxic E.coli permissible in all cheese. According to an FDA letter to the ACS late last year answering an ACS inquiry about a change in the non-toxic E. coli rule, “The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) questioned the scientific justification for FDA’s different criteria for considering regulatory action for raw milk cheese and pasteurized milk cheese with regard to non-toxigenic E.coli.”  The IDFA represents all the huge dairy processors, and when the IDFA asks questions, the FDA listens, and invariably does what it is told. 
  • In addition to seeking out pathogens, the 2014 pilot program was intended to measure the amount of non-pathogenic E.coli in raw-milk cheeses. However, no similar program was launched to investigate pasteurized-milk cheeses. Apparently the IDFA was only concerned about raw milk; it didn’t want the FDA nosing around in its members’ cheese production.  
  • In addition to being linked to Big Dairy demands, the “pilot program” is part and parcel of the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in 2011, but seemingly put on hold until the FDA could work out specific rules guiding its implementation. According to an FDA letter to ACS, “The FDA began a food sampling pilot aimed at aligning with the goals of FSMA, which mandates a risk-informed and preventive approach to food safety.  Through one portion of this pilot, the FDA is seeking information on the rates of microbial contamination in raw milk cheese aged for 60 days.
  • So, how has the sampling gone? As of last August, with more than half the projected 1,600 samples collected, ZERO pathogens had been found in any of the samples from American producers, according to the FDA. “The most recent tally from mid-August indicates that FDA reached 885 samples collected. These samples comprise raw milk cheeses coming from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Swaziland, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the U.S. Five samples isolated Salmonella spp. or Listeria monocytogenes (two samples and three samples respectively). These stemmed from imported cheese and FDA subjected the involved facilities to DWPE.” 
  • The pilot program has apparently just about ended. Since August, as far as I can determine, one sample of raw milk cheese, from an Amish dairy in Michigan, was found to contain listeria monocytogenes. The FDA forced the cheese maker to recall 1,100 pounds of cheese. The producer, to get the FDA out of its hair, discontinued all raw-milk cheese production (it produces mostly pasteurized cheese). The FDA, nearly alone in the world, operates under a zero-tolerance policy for listeria monocytogenes; that’s because very small amounts have been found to not cause illness, and so most other countries have made their rules on the pathogen less rigid. 

So the good news is that American raw-milk cheese producers have been found to be essentially free of any pathogens, and to comply with standards of non-toxic E.coli. Unfortunately, the bad news is likely to be that none of this matters. The FDA isn’t out to gather information, it is on a witch hunt against raw-milk cheese that has gone on for more than a decade now, since FDA dairy head John Sheehan (formerly of huge Lepizza cheese maker Leprino) co-authored an article signaling that FDA would “develop a strategy to eliminate potentially harmful cheeses from the market.” 

My guess is that there are two possible outcomes from this most recent “pilot program” on raw milk cheese. Either the FDA will continue the witch hunt against raw milk cheese via more studies and investigations, or it will simply slap new restrictions or even a ban on before long.

I would love for the FDA to prove me wrong, but the signs for more of a crackdown are obvious: Big Dairy wants the competition from raw-milk cheese eliminated, and what Big Dairy wants, Big Dairy gets. Plus, the FDA wants to show that the Food Safety Modernization Act is “working.” Watch out!