THE REAL CULPRIT isn’t raw-milk cheese. It’s soft cheese.

By Wendy M. Levy/The Commons/ Originally published in The Commons issue #210 (Wednesday, July 3, 2013).

RECENTLY came across a press release from early June that made many a cheesemonger’s ears perk up, mine included. It appeared in The Wall Street Journal, a publication I normally avoid like the plague because there are no funny pages and it’s just kind of ugly, but this time I couldn’t resist.

“New Studies Confirm: Raw Milk a Low-Risk Food” is written in “sciencese” (that’s the science version of “legalese”), but here’s the gist of it: The Centre for Infectious Disease Prevention and Control in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, recently held a scientific Grand Rounds presentation — “Unpasteurised milk: myths and evidence” — in which the agency reviewed dozens of scholarly articles on the safety (or lack thereof) of raw, a.k.a. unpasteurized, milk.

Three of the papers the Canadian CDC reviewed, recently published in the Journal of Food Protection, were quantitative microbial risk assessments (QMRAs). QMRAs are the standard used by the United Nations, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Health Canada to determine food safety.

The presentation “demonstrated a low risk of illness from unpasteurized milk consumption for each of the pathogens: Campylobacter, Shiga-toxin inducing E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes and Staphylococcus aureus. This low risk profile applied to healthy adults as well as members of immunologically susceptible groups: pregnant women, children and the elderly.” (Italics added.)

Why should the cheese world celebrate? Because now we have “authorities” backing up what we’ve been trying to tell people for years.

* * *

EVER SINCE I was a fledgling cheesemonger, I have had countless anxiety-ridded pregnant women (and their sweethearts) come to the various counters I’ve commandeered, their eyes widened by fear, imploring me to ensure the cheese I’m selling them is pasteurized, because doctors routinely tell women to avoid eating raw-milk cheese. All raw-milk cheese.

Do these same doctors tell the same pregnant women to avoid leafy green vegetables? Well, they should, because currently, leafy green vegetables are the culprit behind more food-borne illnesses in the United States than any other food item except poultry, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Have some more kale with that chicken!

So why, if raw milk and raw-milk cheeses are so innocuous, why have American doctors been warning pregnant women against their so-called hazards?

There is a fear that raw-milk cheese carries food-borne pathogens like Listeria monocytogenes, which causes an illness — listeriosis — that pregnant women can transmit transvaginally to their newborns, resulting in their babies contracting meningitis.

Well, that is pretty scary, isn’t it?

It’s also not exactly correct.

* * *

THE REAL CULPRIT isn’t raw-milk cheese. It’s soft cheese.

See, Listeria loves moist environments. It also loves environments with high pH — in other words, low acidity. Soft cheese is soft because it’s got a lot of moisture; the more moisture (whey) that drains from the solids, the harder the cheese.

And harder cheeses have a lower pH (higher acidity) because of the process of fermentation. Low moisture and high acidity create a very unfriendly place for Listeria.

None of this has anything to do with whether the cheese is made of raw or pasteurized milk. In fact, some data out there suggest that pasteurizing milk makes it more friendly to pathogenic bacterial outbreaks, because the helpful (or at least neutral) bacteria living in raw milk maintain stasis in the milk and can fight any bacterial intruders.

Pasteurization kills all bacteria, regardless of whether they’re benign, neutral, or pathogenic. Killing off these helpful bacteria during pasteurization opens up opportunities for pathogenic bacteria to flourish, with nothing in the milk to fight it.

In fact, the European Union agrees, and they’ve been making and eating raw-milk cheese for longer than white people have been living in the USA.

* * *

IT’S NOT LIKE doctors are trying to scare women for no good reason. Doctors aren’t evil, cheese-hating monsters. Nearly all doctors I’ve ever seen tell me they love cheese. Who out there hates cheese, really? (Please don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.)

So how did doctors become confused? Once upon a time, raw milk was pretty dicey. Way before we had things like adequate refrigeration and sanitary standards, milk was carted around all over the place, and the cows who gave the milk didn’t always live in verdant, rolling pastures. They lived in filthy cities and were fed garbage.

Combine that with no fridge, and you have a lot of sick cows whose milk made ill the humans who were drinking it.

My own dear grandmother has worn proverbial “Coke-bottle glasses” since she was 3 years old, when she caught a nasty illness that almost left her blind. The doctors believed she drank milk from a sick cow.

So with the advent of pasteurization — the practice of briefly heating products like milk to kill some pathogens and slow microbial growth — Louis Pasteur really did save countless lives, and I’m not here to disparage his good name.

However, with refrigeration, better safety and sanitary standards, and practices like Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point — a sort of super mega food-safety check developed by NASA for production of astronaut food, a check that’s been adopted by some dairy producers — we can all enjoy raw-milk cheese without almost going blind.

But apparently nobody updated ol’ Doc’s info. Keep this in mind, though, Doc: French women eat tons of raw-milk cheese, and our infant mortality rate is almost double theirs.

* * *

WHILE WE cheesemongers don’t want to come across as know-it-all jerks, and we certainly don’t want to presume to offer advice to anyone about what to eat — especially a pregnant person, who’s already being bombarded with the most ridiculous array of fear tactics and horror stories — it’s hard to be a cheese professional and stand idly by while wrong information gets disseminated by those who are supposed to know better.

As a famous ’monger once said (and I paraphrase here), “I may not be a doctor, but most doctors aren’t cheesemongers.” Neither are they microbiologists.

* * *

SO WHY should you care, especially if you aren’t pregnant? Because, to borrow a phrase from our LGBTQ comrades: Raw milk cheese is here, it’s not going anywhere, so get used to it.

Many would argue that raw-milk cheese tastes better than pasteurized cheese, and in most cases it’s true. Raw-milk cheese tends to have more nuance and complexity than a similarly made pasteurized cheese, because the pasteurization kills the very bacteria that lend volatile organic compounds to the milk and the cheese. And those compounds create flavor.

Raw-milk cheese speaks of cheese’s terroirwhere it comes from and all the geographical characteristics of the place; these are ways in which pasteurized cheese is mostly mute. Also, some of the finest traditional European cheeses can be made only from raw milk due to their PDO (Protected Designation of Origin, a status that dictates the terms under which European Union member nations can name and market food products).

Not all cheese should be made of raw milk. Factory-made cheeses, where the milk comes from the commodity market and could have come from one of any thousands of farms, are best made using pasteurized milk.

But, when the cheesemaker knows the source of the milk, or the milk comes from her own animals, and the maker is properly licensed, raw milk is the way to go.

And now we have scientific data to back that up.

Wendy M. Levy works with cheese in the Brattleboro area and is not your doctor, so don’t take this as medical advice.

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