The risk of a dangerous and sometimes fatal infection from soft-ripened cheeses made from raw milk is up to 160 times higher than that from soft-ripened cheeses made from pasteurized milk, according to a new Food and Drug Administration study.
Tougher regulations on popular raw-milk cheeses could come as a result of the report.
The FDA says its finding is consistent with findings that consuming unpasteurized milk and raw-milk products generally poses a higher risk from pathogens than pasteurized milk and its products.
Regulators say listeria bacterial infections from soft cheeses and other foods have some of the highest fatality and hospitalization rates among pathogenic bacteria, and that the risk of listeriosis from soft-ripened cheese made from unpasteurized milk is 50 to 160 times higher than that from similar products made from pasteurized milk.
Listeria generally only sickens the elderly, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems. There are about 800 cases in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most of the outbreaks have been traced to deli meat and soft cheeses, although in 2011 the CDC said about 140 illnesses and 34 deaths resulted from an outbreak linked to Colorado cantaloupes.
Now, the FDA says it’s assessing whether the 60-day aging process for raw cheeses – which are made from unpasteurized milk – is enough to kill harmful bacteria.
The agency is accepting public comments on the draft study until April 29.
Scientists and the government question the safety of the 60-day rule, which was developed in the 1940s when certain pathogens weren’t known.
The study demonstrates that changes to the regulations are warranted to reduce the risk of listeriosis, said Cary Frye, vice president of regulatory and scientific affairs with the International Dairy Foods Association.
Wisconsin cheese-makers say changing the process by which raw-milk cheeses are made could ruin the richness and flavor that people have come to expect from the products that, when properly made, are safe.
In 2010, a raw-milk cheese from Uplands Cheese Co. in Dodgeville captured the Best of Show award at the annual American Cheese Society Conference, one of the most prestigious competitions in North America.
Uplands says it tests every batch of cheese for pathogens before it leaves the company’s plant, and it tests the unpasteurized milk for pathogens before the milk is used to make cheese.
“I am not willing to bet on what the FDA is going to do,” said Uplands cheese-maker Andy Hatch.
“They raise a couple of issues in the study, and it’s not clear what direction they’re going to take,” he added.
Saxon Homestead Creamery, a cheese-maker north of Sheboygan, says it goes beyond the minimum 60-day aging requirement for its raw-milk cheese because it takes longer to develop some of the unique flavors. The company only uses milk from its own cows to lessen the risk of pathogens, and it tests for harmful bacterium in its cheese-making plant.
“We are very confident that we are doing things properly and are minimizing any potential risk,” said manager Gerald Heimerl.
Cheese industry ‘cringes’
Not every cheese-maker has followed safe practices, however, including some that have caused foodborne illness outbreaks.
In 2011, public health officials in Utah estimated that, over a two-year period, up to 2,100 people were sickened with salmonella from homemade queso fresco cheese.
The Salt Lake Valley Health Department tracked down a source of the outbreak to a man they called “Mr. Cheese,” who was making the product with raw milk and selling it to a restaurant and deli.
The maker of the homemade cheese was fined $500 for health code violations, including making cheese without proper sanitation equipment.
Such incidents can give the cheese industry, worth billions of dollars, a bad name, said John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.
“The whole industry cringes” when there’s an illness outbreak, Umhoefer said.
Heimerl, with Saxon Homestead Creamery, said he “wanted to scream” when he read about a cheese plant in Washington where a food safety inspector found a cat coming out of the cooler.
“We spend a lot of time and money trying to do things properly, and then somebody pulls a stupid stunt like that,” he said.
The FDA study said testing every lot of raw-milk cheese could lessen the pathogens risk. The agency said it intends to use the study and other information to evaluate the safety of the 60-day aging rule.
Some type of compromise may be in order, Umhoefer said. To resist any change would not be recognizing the food safety risk, he said.
Critics of the FDA assessment say it was a solution in search of a problem because foodborne illness outbreaks from raw-milk cheeses aren’t common. Also, contamination often comes after a product is made.
The source could be almost anything, Heimerl said, including restaurant employees not washing their hands before handling food or slicing equipment in a delicatessen that wasn’t properly sanitized.
In early 2012, Bekkum Family Farms of Westby recalled Grumpy Goat shredded cheese because it may have been contaminated with listeria.
Bekkum said the cheese was shredded on equipment where products from other companies that tested positive for the pathogen were shredded.
Federal health officials said ricotta salata cheese tainted with listeria was linked to 22 illnesses, including 22 hospitalizations and four deaths. The imported Italian cheese, distributed by Forever Cheese Inc., was made from pasteurized sheep’s milk and was sold to grocery stores, restaurants and wholesale distributors between Sept. 1, 2011, and Aug. 31, 2012.
With pasteurization, milk is briefly heated to a temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria. Food safety officials say it’s essential, since pathogens in untreated milk may cause severe illness or even death.
Yet dairy products that undergo pasteurization can pose a hazard, too, if they’re contaminated after the process. And advocates of unpasteurized cheese say it has beneficial bacteria that lessen the risk of contamination from pathogens.
They say raw milk has beneficial properties that boost the immune system and can help cure a plethora of ailments.
“The health benefits of raw milk and raw-milk cheeses have been known for centuries,” said Roy Ozanne, a homeopathic physician from Two Rivers.
The first and most important factor is whether the milk is from healthy cows, Ozanne added.
About 22 Wisconsin cheese-makers produce raw-milk cheese. Some of them have small operations that could not afford pasteurization equipment even if they wanted it, and tougher regulations could put them out of business.
Artisan cheese-makers have found a niche in a dairy industry that’s often geared toward mass production.
It makes the scrutiny of raw-milk cheeses a volatile issue, said Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, a farm-policy research center in Cornucopia.
The two markets for the products are consumers who feel that raw milk makes a superior cheese, and others who are interested in natural foods. Both would be skeptical about changes in the cheese-making process, Kastel said.
“I think consumers should be able to weigh the benefits of raw milk with some of the risks,” he said.