Championed by advocates for taste and health benefits, raw milk cheese also faces increased scrutiny by regulators.
Gone are the glory days of neon orange processed cheese. Instead, consumers are more widely welcoming artisan cheeses — cheeses that focus on taste and the individual attention of a skilled craftsperson. Raw milk cheese, a specialized segment of artisan cheese made from unpasteurized milk, has been trickling into more retailers’ dairy offerings.
Raw milk cheese devotees say raw milk cheeses have a distinct richness and complex flavor; however, after several high-profile recalls, the category has faced increased observation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Although widely available in natural food stores and farmers’ markets, raw milk cheeses can be found in a growing number of high-end supermarkets with comprehensive cheese cases, such as Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market (left) and Dorothy Lane Market.
Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, with a two retail stores in Seattle and New York, started making raw milk cheeses after its pasteurizer was down for a day, Beecher’s owner and founder Kurt Beecher Dammeier told SN.
“Then, people liked it, and it became an interesting conversation [about the differences between the cheeses], so we continued on doing that.”
Beecher’s also supplies retailers, and Dammeier said Beecher’s two raw milk cheeses are most popular in stores catering to health-conscious consumers.
“Certain retailing environments sell and like to sell our raw cheese. Places like that tend to sell health foods where people are interested in the raw milk, not just for its flavor, but primarily for its health properties,” Dammeier said.
According to Dammeier, there are two camps of people who are drawn to raw milk cheese: the health concerned and the “cheese geek.”
“Cheese geeks” find raw milk cheese has a more authentic flavor and “more accurately expresses the milk or the terroir,” through a more traditional cheesemaking method, he said.
“The other group that likes raw milk cheeses think that the bacteria that’s present in raw milk is important for digestion and that pasteurization kills the food and they’re really passionate about eating real whole foods that have bacteria in them and that bacteria is important for life.”
At Dorothy Lane Market, cheese specialist David Mader thinks raw milk cheese is a bit of an obscure term for many consumers, but said he does have shoppers come in to the store looking for raw milk cheese products.
“We do have periodically, and it’s happened in the last two or three weeks, I would say a small handful of times, of people coming in wanting to know more about raw cheese and looking for them,” he said.
While many Dorothy Lane Market shoppers might not come in looking for raw milk cheese, Mader does recommend raw milk cheeses to customers when price and taste compare to pasteurized cheeses.
With similar cheeses, “I would tend to recommend people try the raw milk cheeses because I think they do have benefits and often, I don’t want to say truer, but a more complete flavor.”
When describing cheeses, Mader said he cites raw milk as a benefit when listing a cheese’s qualities, but customers aren’t always familiar with the term. When asked, he’ll explain that raw milk cheeses are unpasteurized and share his opinions on why raw milk cheese can be beneficial, he said.
Customers who buy Beecher’s raw milk cheese don’t necessarily do so because of the raw milk ingredient, according to Dammeier.
“I would say that the majority don’t care or pay attention. To them, cheese is cheese, and it tastes good. The camp of health people is probably a little smaller than the camp of ‘cheese-istas’ who want the flavor created by raw milk cheese.”
To educate customers, Whole Foods Market posts information about raw milk cheese on the front of its cheese counter. A card at one of its Manhattan locations notes that “pasteurization alters the richer, more complex flavors in cheese, so raw milk cheese is one of the joys of the connoisseur.”
The Whole Foods sign also notes the FDA requirement that raw milk cheese be aged a minimum of 60 days “allowing time for the natural cultures in the cheese to destroy the bacteria.”
EYE ON SAFETY
“Very rarely do people ask [about food safety], they just assume,” he said.
In addition to pregnant women warned by doctors to avoid raw milk cheeses, Mader said he does have the occasional customer who comes to the cheese counter looking to avoid raw milk products.
“I think the number of people seeking it is much, much greater.”
To the dismay of raw food advocates, high-profile recalls starting in 2010 have put small, artisanal raw milk cheesemakers under observation by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In late 2010, Oroville, Wash.-based cheesemaker Sally Jackson recalled her grape leaf wrapped raw sheep, goat and cow milk cheese after FDA linked her cheese to eight cases of E. coli.
Although the lack of pasteurization of raw milk cheese is often focused on as the main cause for raw milk cheese food safety concerns, FDA inspection reports noted several health violations at Jackson’s facility such as unclean surfaces, cracked flower pots used as cheese molds, untreated and cracked wood, and a water supply cross-connected with waste water systems.
The recall and illnesses led Jackson, who widely distributed her cheese to restaurants and retailers such as Whole Foods, to close her 30-year-old business.
Earlier that year, E. coli linked to cheese from Bravo Farms in Traver, Calif., sickened 38 people. Bravo Farms cheese samples were also found to contain Listeria. Morningland Dairy in Mountain View, Mo., and Estrella Family Creamery in Montesano, Wash., recalled raw milk cheese that year as well.
FDA has been investigating its 60-day aging policy, but hasn’t announced whether it will be changing its raw milk cheese safety rules.
On the FDA raw milk resource website, the agency recommends consumers avoid soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk and avoid buying milk or milk products from farmers’ markets unless the product can be verified as pasteurized.
Dammeier noted that pasteurization isn’t a panacea for food safety because pathogens can be introduced all along the supply chain.
“The problem is that there’s been a correlation between raw milk cheesemaking and cheesemaker size, experience, and safe processes,” Dammeier said, noting the cheesemakers with the safety problems were mostly small operations without good food safety policies in place.
There have been conflicting recent reports on the inherent safety of raw milk cheese.
A study published this spring from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln looked at 41 different fresh milk cheeses from retail specialty shops, farmers’ markets and online and analyzed them for pathogenic bacteria.
“Based on the results obtained from these 41 raw milk cheeses, the 60-day aging rule for unpasteurized milk cheeses appears adequate for producing microbiologically safe products,” the report’s abstract said.
Meanwhile, a February CDC study concluded that the rate of outbreak for raw milk and raw milk products was 150 times greater than pasteurized milk products.
“I think in general the pasteurized cheesemaker takes more precautions than the raw milk cheesemaker,” said consultant Neville McNaughton of CheezSorce, St. Louis.
“And I’m not saying there aren’t raw milk cheesemakers that take equal precautions, but the minute we don’t pasteurize we know that we have a pathogen load or a potential pathogen load and many of the raw milk cheesemakers are not acknowledging that and they aren’t showing their products to be safe.”
McNaughton urged retailers to require cheese suppliers to have good safety practices that include product testing.
To illustrate the need for caution, McNaughton gave the example of a new cheesemaker whose products were picked up by a 200-store chain retailer with no certificate of analysis.
“This goat cheesemaker and farmer did not have a pH meter and learned to make cheese from a man who said, ‘All you need to worry about is time and temperature.’”
“They had his cheese in 26 stores within 60 days of his being in business,” said McNaughton.
“Some were raw and some were pasteurized, and I got a call because he was having problems because his cheese was not making acid. That could have been a disaster.”