Serious Cheese: On Raw-Milk Cheese

Serious Cheese

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A few weeks back, JGordon left a comment on my post regarding France's raw-milk cheese war: "Could someone explain the difference between pasteurized cheeses and raw milk cheeses? Does pasteurization just destroy the flavor of cheese?... Despite the near-illegality of raw milk and its rare consumption, several hundred people a year become ill from drinking raw milk, with the occasional death. Is cheese safer, or is the taste difference very significant?"

The raw-milk debate isn't going away anytime soon, so I thought it would be a good time to answer questions like those above and lay down my take on the matter.

Raw Milk vs. Raw-milk Cheese

Drinking raw milk is a public health issue. Milk can contain some seriously dangerous bacteria, including Listeria, E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella. Before pasteurization became the norm, raw milk consumption was linked with even more serious diseases like typhoid, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis. But making cheese out of raw milk is really a separate issue. For various reasons, raw-milk cheese produced under strict standards of cleanliness is far safer than raw fluid milk.

And yes, raw-milk cheese does taste better--dramatically so. The complex mix of organisms naturally occurring in raw milk leads to a depth of flavor that pasteurized cheeses can't really approach. That's not to say that there aren't any pasteurized cheeses that are excellent, nor are all raw-milk cheeses revelations, but the trend is undeniable.

Factors that Influence Bacterial Growth

As explained by UVM Professor Catherine W. Donnelly in Chapter 9 of the book American Farmstead Cheese, there are a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors that influence how hospitable a given cheese is to bacterial growth. High salt content, high acidity, and the presence of antimicrobial substances in the cheese are all factors that can influence the number of bacterial pathogens. How the milk and cheese are handled both on the farm and in the processing plant also affects bacterial growth.

It's all Relative

Given that, certain cheeses are less risky than others: semi-firm and firm, aged cheeses like the blues, Swiss, cheddars, and most Italian cheeses are considered safer than soft cheeses like ricotta, Brie, Camembert, etc. Moreover, cheeses made at small operations are less risky than those from bigger plants. (Incidence of Salmonella is much lower among farms with fewer than 100 animals than those with more than 100.)

Pasteurization Not a Magic Bullet

There is a theory that pasteurization can in some ways actually be more problematic than using raw milk. Pasteurization kills off any beneficial bacteria that are naturally present in raw milk. These beneficial bacteria could be an important defense against pathogenic growth, especially in a medium such as milk whose high water-content, relatively low acidity and high sugar levels make for a bacteria-friendly environment. Pasteurization also has the appearance of a magic bullet technique, which could lead producers to cut corners by using inferior milk or accepting shoddy procedures with regard to cleanliness. The science hasn't been done yet to bear all this out, but the theory is compelling.

Cleanliness is Next To Godliness

So ultimately Dr. Connelly recommends an approach to raw-milk cheese that involves stricter manufacture along with better bacterial testing throughout. I tend to agree because it would be a shame if the FDA decided to shut down raw-milk cheeses altogether. What about you? Where do you stand in this debate? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.