Despite Federal Restrictions, More American Foodies Choose Unpasteurized Cheese

February 22, 2010

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For centuries, Europeans have enjoyed unpasteurized cheeses, said to be tastier and more nuanced than their heat-treated brethren. To prevent the growth of dangerous pathogens like salmonella and E. coli, the U.S. government requires that raw milk cheese age for at least 60 days. A growing number of American cheese lovers swear by unpasteurized cheese and call the federal regulations unnecessary. WBEZ food contributor David Hammond sniffs around for answers. 

HAMMOND: I'm at the website for the Illinois Department of Public Health at a page headed “Risks Associated with Consumption of Unpasteurized Dairy Product.” Let me read you the first few lines: “Each year, people become ill from drinking raw milk and eating foods made from raw dairy products. Unlike most milk, cheese and dairy products sold in the United States, raw milk and raw dairy products have not been heat treated or pasteurized to kill bacteria. In Illinois, it is illegal to sell these products to the public.” That may be a little misleading. You can sell raw milk cheese in Illinois and elsewhere in the United States without violating any laws or regulations, as long as the cheese has been aged for at least 60 days.
Like many artisanal American cheese mongers, Erik Larson of Oak Park's Marion Street Cheese Market sells a lot of raw milk cheese – legally.

[Ambi, Marion Street Cheese Market]

LARSON: The American artisan cheese movement is really partly founded on the belief that raw milk produces amazing cheese, really something exceptional and outstanding. So when I got into the business five years ago, we right from the beginning got into offering 50% raw milk cheeses and I would say right now three-fourths are raw milk and they do follow the United States law that they be at least aged 60 days, so we have no raw milk under-60-day cheeses, they're all aged, and really the aging process is what takes care of any of the potentially harmful bacteria.

HAMMOND: How would you describe the European attitude toward raw milk cheese? How does it differ from the attitude of those in the United States, specifically for cheese aged under 60 days?

LARSON: Yeah, you really see the big differences there. Their big commodity cheeses often are pasteurized; that's because large scale dairy production is going to require pasteurization. But the small artisan cheese producer will always go raw milk. In Europe, it's just so common there. They don't really get what our issue is.
 
HAMMOND: Many artisanal cheese makers say that there is a clear taste difference between, say, an illegal raw milk camembert aged less than 60 days and a legal pasteurized milk camembert aged for the same length of time. The raw milk cheese, so the thinking goes, will always be much tastier. I decided to test the foodie article of faith that a young camembert made from raw milk will clearly outshine a young camembert made from pasteurized milk. Coleen Graham, a cheese maker and owner of CheeseParties.com., agreed to make two batches of camembert, each aged under 60 days, using milk from the same cow and the same cheese-making techniques. One batch would be made from raw milk and the other from pasteurized milk.

[GRAHAM 4, 01:32-48, Sounds of milk being whisked]

GRAHAM: Today, we'll make it, we'll coagulate it, we'll put it in the molds, then it will be flipped, and then we'll start the aging process. That will take about four weeks.

HAMMOND: That means we're going to be sampling raw milk cheese that's aged around 30 days, which is illegal to sell in the U.S. Hey, I'm starting to feel like an outlaw already. So, how does one procure raw milk, which is also illegal to sell?

GRAHAM: In order to get raw milk, you would buy a portion of the cow, and what I would do with that portion of the cow would be up to me, so I could take that portion out as meat at the end or I could take it out in milk during the springtime.

HAMMOND: About a month after Graham made the cheese, we got together with a group of chefs and other food enthusiasts in Itasca at a wine bar called Wine with Me to sample both raw and pasteurized milk versions of camembert. No money changes hands, and we're all consenting adults, so technically there's no illegal activity taking place. Sitting around a big wooden table, we're confronted by two very different looking cheeses. As part of this taste test, neither cheese was labeled, but the differences were very apparent. One cheese was rigid and uniform; the other was collapsing in on itself. We started by putting our noses into the stuff. Gary Wiviott is a Chicago food writer and author.

WIVIOTT: [SFX: sniff, sniff] Of the two cheeses, one has a distinct ammonia smell and the other smells funky, earthy, almost a little mushroom-y, like a damp forest on a fall day, when the leaves are just starting to break down, very appealing, a very appealing aroma. And the other has a less appealing aroma…I just want to dive into the softer, slightly gooey looking one. I just want to take a big bite out of the darn thing.

HAMMOND: Based on appearances alone, do you have a guess about which is the raw one and which is the pasteurized milk cheese?

WIVIOTT: Absolutely. I could guess to within 99.99% which is which. The one that's softer, which I think of more as a traditional French cheese, you know like a funky Epoisses, I would certainly say that that's the non-pasteurized cheese. I don't think there's any doubt. The one that has more structural integrity is the pasteurized because the good bacteria that has been killed off by the pasteurization hasn't had an opportunity to break down the structure of the cheese and ferment the cheese and make it all the delicious things that happen when a cheese ages.

HAMMOND: Wiviott was right, and as it turned out, everyone sitting around the table correctly distinguished the raw from the pasteurized milk cheese based pretty much on appearance and smells alone. Tasting the cheeses merely confirmed those judgments. I staged a similar taste test with Larson and some of his expert cheese mongers at Marion Street Cheese Market. Again, there was little doubt about which was which. The raw milk variety was clearly tastier, with more dimension, more interesting stuff going on …more life. Christine Sheil works the cheese counter at Marion Street Cheese Market. While living in Europe, Sheil learned to love the beautiful cheese made from raw, unpasteurized milk.
 
SHEIL; Especially with the younger cheeses, you get a lot depth of flavor and more complexity with raw milk cheeses, it's one of the major things I miss from being over there.

HAMMOND: During the taste test, Sheil explained that the raw milk cheese tasted distinctly of its terroir, the place from which it came.
 
SHEIL: It has a creamier, more dense type of flavor, and a slightly more, you know, you get the grassiness, but you also get something a little bit more, like maybe the flowers that the cows ate. 
 
SHEIL: With the older cheeses…with the environment in which they're being aged, a lot can happen to give them a nice complexity of flavor. But with the younger cheeses, there's not the time period so all the complexity really does come from the milk. And I do think it's tragic that we don't really experience that here in the U.S.

HAMMOND: It's argued by some that requiring pasteurization is a politically motivated maneuver by Big Cheese to squeeze small producers. Bill Anderson, a Wisconsin cheese monger, told me why he thought regulators make it so tough on raw milk. 

ANDERSON: They claim that it's a public health risk, but I don't think that's the real reason why. I think it has to more to do with the politics of dairy processing.

HAMMOND: I asked Anup Malani, who teaches Food and Drug Law at the University of Chicago, what he thinks of this Big Cheese conspiracy theory.

MALANI: So, I've heard this theory before, and I've actually heard it not just in the context of domestic manufacturers alleging that this is the case. I've also heard some people suggest, Europeans suggest, that this is just not really a law concerned about public health, it's really just a way to block the import of European cheeses, which is very similar in flavor, that this is economically motivated, not motivated by health. You know, I generally like conspiracy theories, or at least I'm open to them, but I'm a little skeptical of these, and the reason is I haven't seen any data that suggests artisanal cheese are a serious share of the total cheese market in the United States. And just think about it intuitively, the sorts of people that I know that go for young, unpasteurized cheese aren't the sorts of people who are eating a lot of processed cheese.

HAMMOND: Malani believes the ban on these cheeses could have the unintended consequence of creating health problems when cheese-loving citizens seek them out on an unregulated black market. But there may be a way around this.

MALANI There are lots of products where they have risks associated with them, and our government warns of these risks, so maybe we should just have warning labels and have cheese mongers have disclosure rules that say there's a heightened risk of these particular bacterial infections because this cheese is aged less than sixty days. And that may be sufficient to protect people. 

HAMMOND: For Worldview on WBEZ, I'm David Hammond.


Sky Full of Bacon Short: Making Illegal Cheese from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.