Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Government's Looming Crackdown on Raw Milk Cheese

The Government's Looming Crackdown on Raw Milk Cheese:
Earlier this month reports emerged that the FDA had
detained
a U.S.-bound shipment of mimolette, a French
cheese.
Mimolette, which has been imported into the U.S. for decades, is
beloved and is unusual because its rind contains microscopic cheese
mites. The FDA also recently
held up
a shipment of another such French cheese, Salers.
The FDA’s complaints about the cheeses that reached U.S. shores
in these cases? That they contain cheese mites.
Well, yeah.
If this FDA crackdown on a set of rather obscure, mitey
artisanal cheeses that conform to traditional standards sounds like
a small, targeted regulatory intervention involving cheeses you’ve
never heard of, consider that this agency crackdown is but one
small part of the FDA’s larger, very concerted international and
domestic attack on artisanal cheeses—especially those made with raw
milk.
Take a joint U.S.-Canadian government draft report,
Quantitative Assessment of the Risk of Listeriosis from
Soft-Ripened Cheese Consumption in the United States and
Canada
, which has cheese buyers and sellers alike
scared
about the future of artisanal cheese in North
America.
Both the U.S. and Canadian governments currently require soft
and semi-soft cheeses sold across state (or provincial) borders to
be aged for at least 60 days.
The report acknowledges, though, that “cheeses made from raw
milk that have not been aged for 60 days” are legal in Canada in
the province of Qu├ębec. The intrastate sale of raw milk and/or raw
milk cheeses is legal in some sense in more than three-dozen
states, according to this Farm to
Consumer Legal Defense Fund map.
The report doesn't just touch on raw-milk cheeses. Its focus is
laserlike. Indeed, by my count the words “raw” and “unpasteurized”
appear more than 230 times in the 175-page report.
Both supporters and opponents of raw-milk cheeses view the
report as a giant step toward increased restrictions on artisanal
cheeses made with unpasteurized milk.
The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), whose members
only “use pasteurized milk in cheese production,” notes
the report will help the FDA in its ongoing “reevaluation of the
current 60-day aging requirements for cheese made from raw
milk.”
The report is a likely “prelude to increased regulations,” food
law attorney Jason
Foscolo
, who represents many artisanal food producers, told me
in a recent email.
But are increased regulations necessary? Critics of the study,
including Foscolo, note the science doesn’t support that
approach.
Indeed, much of the science contained in the report appears at
least as soft as the raw-milk cheeses the report claims may be
problematic.
The American Cheese Society, which represents artisanal
producers, claims in
comments
it filed with the FDA that the draft report contains
several “inaccurate and misleading” statements that could spur
"increased regulatory efforts beyond those justified by empirical
evidence.”
Jill Erber, who owns Cheesetique, with two locations in
Northern Virginia, echoes the ACS comments.
Erber, who Reason magazine's Katherine Mangu-Ward
interviewed for a 2009 column
on the harm that punitive American cheese tariffs do to U.S.
businesses and consumers, read the draft report and notes several
shortcomings with the data.
Using that data, she calculated in an email to me that the
chances of a person in a high-risk group (e.g., a pregnant woman)
being sickened by pasteurized cheese are the same as the
likelihood of someone from the general population being sickened by
unpasteurized cheese—in both cases a scant 1 in 55 million.
Erber notes that means "1/6 of the entire country could eat
camembert at the same time and ONE person would get really
sick."
Those microscopic odds are also reflected in real-world
numbers.
Erber points out the report notes just “725 reported illnesses
in the entire
world
over a 25
year period
,” a startlingly small number given worldwide
cheese consumption.
Even the IDFA admits soft and semi-soft cheeses like
Camembert—whether from pasteurized milk or not—pose little to no
risk.
“The last outbreak in the United States was in 2006,” notes the
IDFA.
The draft report itself acknowledges a few of its many
limitations. For example, it observes that like “all risk
assessments, [its] results rely on inferences from limited data and
on extrapolations.”
It also indicates another key shortcoming—that experts have
little idea where and when contamination happens due to “a lack of
information about the non-milk contamination sources.”
For the FDA, though, these extrapolations, information gaps, and
a few rare exceptions may be just the excuse the agency needs to
craft a harmful new set of rules.
“[R]egulators suggest they want to see raw milk cheeses like
camembert and brie either subject to unprecedented testing,
processing similar to pasteurization, or else banned completely,”
writes journalist David Gumpert, author of the book
The Raw Milk Revolution
, in a recent Food Safety
News

column
.
The one potential bright spot both Erber and Gumpert note in the
report is the indication that aging cheeses may simply allow
Listeria more time to grow in those cheeses.
"[O]ne reassuring finding is that aging raw milk cheese for 60
days has no apparent effect on the presence of Listeria—and may do
more harm than good," writes Erber. "My only hope is that this
information will be used to support eliminating this
requirement."
If not more regulations, then what?
“We believe that the best way to prevent food-borne illness in
cheese is to obtain our cheeses made by farmers and cheesemakers
who work closely with the herd from which they are getting milk,
and regularly test the milk for signs of food-borne illness,” says
Carolyn Stromberg, owner of Washington, DC’s Righteous Cheese, in an email
to me.
The
public comment
period for the draft report ends this Monday,
April 29. You can weigh in directly on the issue
here
.