The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has just informed raw cheese producers to expect fun and games in 2014: It will begin a pilot program lasting all of next year, during which it will test at least 1,700 samples of raw milk cheese. All this testing is in addition to rather than in place of existing sampling of raw cheese.
According to a report from the Gourmet Retailer, a trade association, the FDA will test a new microbiological sampling surveillance model that will be analyzed for contamination from salmonella, L. monocytogenes and E. coli O157:H7.(The Gourmet Retailer article says the FDA notified the American Cheese Society of the planned testing during a conference call; however, the ACS on its home page indicates information about the program is available only to ACS members; the Gourmet Retailer appears to have obtained its information from the ACS.)
For the last four years, the FDA has had its sights trained on raw milk cheese. It used much tougher enforcement action than it normally uses to shut down two raw-milk cheese producers in 2010 based on finding listeria in their cheese or on their premises, but absent any illnesses (Morningland Dairy and Estrella Family Creamery).
Also in 2010, as I reported in my book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights, the FDA conducted inspections of three-fourths of 130 members of the American Cheese Society, compared with 10% in previous years, the organization reported. Aside from Morningland and Estrella, no others had problems with pathogens in their cheeses or facilities.
Then, early this year, it came out with a study concluding that there is a 50- to 160-fold increase in the risk of listeriosis from a serving of soft-ripened raw-milk cheese, compared with cheese made from pasteurized milk. A close examination I did of that study showed that conclusion to be based on theoretical mathematical extrapolations made in the face of real-life evidence showing not a single illness over the previous 23 years from listeriosis involving soft raw milk cheese.
Talk about a solution in search of a problem. Even Bill Marler, the food safety lawyer and definitely not a raw milk enthusiast, concluded in a September analysis (one of several he has done in recent years) of the 60-day aging rule in place since the late 1940s for all raw milk cheeses, that there isn’t a lot to worry about with raw milk cheese safety. Based on an analysis going back more than 60 years to the implementation of the raw milk aging rule, he concluded that outbreaks and illnesses linked to 60-day aged cheese are relatively rare despite microbiological evidence of pathogen survival in these cheeses… What he was saying is that very few people have become sick during that long time period, though there is evidence that certain pathogens can survive more than the 60 days of required aging. He suggested that the reason few people get sick is likely the result either of low contamination level in milk used in cheesemaking or alterations in virulence of pathogens in the aged cheese.
Interestingly, the new FDA testing program appears to be focused on finding evidence of pathogens in raw milk cheese, not on finding evidence of illnesses. As an example of the contradiction here….listeria in very low volumes have been found not to cause illness, and as a result, the European Union allows the presence of listeria in foods at low levels, in contrast to the FDA’s zero-tolerance rule. What the FDA appears to be doing is going on a treasure hunt in search of pathogens so it can play the gotcha game–if a single pathogen like listeria shows up on one of the samples being tested next year, it will be another notch on its belt, and in the underlying purpose here: to develop an excuse for either banning raw milk cheeses entirely, or else lengthening the 60-day rule enough that most soft cheeses, and perhaps other cheeses as well, will become impractical to produce. Take a few more nutrient-dense foods out of the system.
The problem for the FDA, and the corporate processed cheese producers whose interests it is most concerned about, specialized raw milk cheese has become increasingly popular over the last five years. The ACS has seen its membership soar, more than doubling from 2003 to 2011.
What happens if the FDA inspectors find evidence of pathogens in cheese tested? The article in Gourmet Retailer answers that question with bureaucratese: Any “response to positive findings will be at FDA’s discretion, but will likely follow traditional FDA approaches similar to those used whenever a product is believed to be contaminated–including traceback, inspection, environmental sampling, additional product testing, and voluntary recall if necessary.” In other words, expect the full treatment accorded Morningland Dairy and Estrella Cheese–don’t be surprised if FDA inspectors dressed in battle fatigues show up to test your premises for days, and then call for a full recall going back six months or a year, followed by a shutdown.
The only potential good news for domestic producers of raw milk cheese (and it’s not very good) is that about 70% of the sampling will be of imported raw milk cheeses, and only 30% of domestic cheese, according to the Gourmet Retailer article. In addition, this will be more an equal opportunity program, with imported sprouts and raw almonds included in the testing.
Get ready then for another study based on this testing program showing raw milk cheeses to be hundreds of times more dangerous than pasteurized milk cheese. The goal is clear: to find excuses to limit or eliminate entirely access to raw milk cheese, and possibly to other nutrient-dense foods like raw almonds (which are nearly entirely imported, since domestic almonds must be pasteurized) and sprouts, whether evidence of a problem exists .or not.