Friday, February 11, 2011

Raw Milk Review

The debate over raw milk and cheeses made from raw milk has been heating up this winter. This past December, Sally Jackson Cheese recalled all of their cheeses due to the possibility of E. coli 0157:H7 contamination. This causes diarrhea and bloody stools with most healthy adults recovering within a week. It is possible to develop Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome which is a form of kidney failure. The elderly and young children are more likely to develop this condition which can lead to kidney damage and death.

So what went wrong? Sally Jackson makes cheese from raw or unpasteurized, cow, goat, and sheep milk. These cheeses were found to be made under conditions that create a risk of contamination when the facility was inspected by health officials. The cheeses were identified as one possible source of E. coli infection. There were 8 reported cases between September and November of E. coli in Washington and Oregon which could be traced to Sally Jackson cheeses.

Seven patients were able to provide food histories and one reported eating Sally Jackson cheese. Four patients said they may have eaten Sally Jackson cheese, three of these ate at restaurants which served Sally Jackson cheese. The 4th of these ate a variety of artisinal cheeses which may have included Sally Jackson cheese. Two patients had consumed artisanal cheese but were unsure if any of it was made by Sally Jackson.

Sally Jackson began making cheese after receiving a "Small and Appropriate Technology Grant” during the Carter administration. They tended 140 acres in Oroville, WA and raised goats, sheep, and a few cows. They made cheese exclusively from the milk of their own herds. All cheeses were made from raw milk and aged for 60 days as per FDA regulations. I was able to try one of their cheeses at a Slow Food event in which Cowgirl Creamery provided a handsome cheese plate. I remember being very excited to finally get to taste some of the well know Sally Jackson cheese. I was impressed by its clean taste and supple paste.

Sally Jackson closed its doors in December. Their website, has a very brief statement which does not go into detail but says that, "Many factors went into our decision to retire the business." Among these must have been heartbreak and frustration. The possibility of even one person getting sick from a cheese I made is a risk I do not want to take. I do not know the conditions of their cheesemaking operation but having a government agency come in and declare it unsanitary must have been very painful.

Bravo Farms in Traver, CA also had an outbreak of E. coli in which 38 people in 5 states became sick. This outbreak was traced to their raw milk Gouda which was sold by retail giant Costco. Investigators cite Bravo Farms with packaging their cheese for sale before the 60 day aging period ended. In the case of Sally Jackson, the facility was found to be unsanitary.

In both cases, investigators are unable to clearly state that the contamination has been traced to the raw milk used to in making the cheese. Contamination can occur at any part of the cheesemaking process regardless of whether the milk is raw or pasteurized. The issue these cases has brought to the forefront is the effectiveness of the 60 day aging rule. It has been widely accepted that cheese made from raw milk and aged 60 days will naturally destroy any harmful bacterial during that period. The bacteria, acid, and salt in cheese will consume any harmful bacteria within that 60 day time frame. But it is not just raw milk cheesemakers getting recalled. In 2009, nine cheesemakers in the US issued recalls and five used pasteurized milk and the other four made raw milk cheeses.

What we are learning now is that the 60 day time frame was an arbitrary decision. This rule was created in the 1940's after outbreaks of typhoid fever were linked to cheese. Scientists knew that as a cheese dried out it was no longer an ideal environment for bacteria. This lead to the 60 day rule which is now being seen as simplistic. Cheese has changed a lot since the 1940's and they are many different types of cheese currently being made in the US. The pathogens in cheese have also changed, making E. coli and listeria more dangerous threats.

Recently a paper was published which showed that E. coli could survive in cheese for more than a year. A study from 2008 showed that levels of listeria increase in soft cheese as it aged. This style of cheese becomes less acidic as it ages and moisture increases which are good conditions for bacteria. So what can we do to ensure that cheese is safe?

Food safety has become a major issue with recent outbreaks in spinach, celery, and eggs. The Food Safety Modernization Act was passed by the U.S. Senate December 22, 2010 and President Obama signed it into law on January 4th 2011. This bill aims to prevent food borne illness outbreaks before they occur. Some provisions of this bill include:

*Enables the FDA to issue a food recall. Previously, the company had to issue a voluntary food recall.
*Evey two years, the FDA will identify major threats to food safety and provide science based outlines and regulations to deal with these threats.
*Create offices in at least 5 forgien countries that export food to the US to improve food oversight.
*The FDA will inspect high risk food production facilities every three years.

I didn't see any mention of raw milk or raw milk cheese in the information given about the Food Safety Modernization Act. This legislation seems to focus on produce and imported food. But it is agreed that the cheese industry does need to improve food safety standards which go beyond aging. Raw milk should be tested frequently as well as the finished product throughout various stages of aging. It is also necessary to improve hygiene and stress its importance.

The raw milk I get from my local farm is tested daily and the results are posted. I have never been concerned about their milk and have every confidence in their cleanliness. I was surprised when a dairy farmer told me about an exchange she had with a neighbor farmer. The neighbor was shocked that they dairy farmer consumed raw goat milk. The neighbor thought it was too dangerous of a substance for family consumption. But when you are so involved in every step of the process from raising the goats, feeding them, breeding them, and milking them, why not drink the raw milk? There is nothing inherent in raw milk which makes it dangerous.

Milk and cheese must be tested and these regulations vary from state to state. Do we need to make these regulations uniform as the end product does cross state lines? Cheesemakers should not fear testing and inspection as this will ensure food safety which is good for the cheesemaker and consumer. It can be difficult dealing with new regulations when you are so accustomed to doing things the way they have always been done in your operation. Changes can also be costly which is very difficult to afford in this economic climate. I would hate to see more wonderful cheesemakers go out of business.

I was at a conference recently (more on this in a later blog) and was surprised when a lecturer said that there is no good and bad bacteria, just bacteria. She was teaching us about pH and TA testing. Preforming these tests throughout the cheesemaking process will ensure a safe end product. This is a practice I have yet to apply to my cheesemaking, but now that I have learned of its importance I will put it into practice.

I do not know the future of raw milk cheeses but I do not think we need to outlaw all raw milk cheeses. If you were to do that, you may as well outlaw all cheese. Raw milk cheese in various stages have been consumed in France for ages but even the European Union is starting to crack down on raw milk and cheese made from raw milk. It would be a shame to lose the traditions of raw milk cheese. You could kiss your Parmigiano-Reggiano and your Roquefort good bye!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Rind time!

To eat the rind or not to eat the rind, that is the question. A woman was very perplexed recently when I offered her a taste of Bonne Bouche; she said "it's blue!” She was lacking confidence in her knowledge of cheese rinds and in her cheesemonger. Bonne Bouche is an ash ripened goat cheese that has a grayish blue rind that is completely edible. The rind is coated with vegetable ash which is often used in cheesemaking. Humboldt Fog and Morbier are two classic examples of cheeses that use ash. Both have a line of ash through the center of the paste.

Many that night were calling Bonne Bouche a blue cheese but it's not, it just has a striking look which makes it a great addition to any cheese plate. I love Bonne Bouche, the ash coating helps the cheese age, prevents unwanted molds and intruders, and helps the paste get crazy runny and gooey. This cheese won best goat cheese at the 2010 American Cheese Society conference. You can learn more about Bonne Bouche at

Some cheeses have a natural rind like bandaged wrapped cheddar. This means that the truckle (term for a wheel of cheddar which refers to its shape) was wrapped in cheesecloth which is often coated in lard and then aged. Before the cheese goes to market the cheesecloth is removed but you can still see the hatch marks on the rind left behind from the texture of the cloth. You can choose to eat this rind if you like but it will be a bit dry. Similarly, other cheeses get a paper coating to their rind. If won’t kill you to eat paper but it won’t add much flavor.

Blue cheeses like Cashel blue and Mountain Gorgonzola have a natural rind. The rind on Mountain Gorgonzola can be dry and brittle. Often the natural rind on a blue cheese can be more concentrated in flavor. You can decide to eat them if you want. Some blue cheeses like Buttermilk Blue and Maytag blue have no rinds. Their rinds are removed before packaging.

There are a few rinds that you really don't want to eat. If a cheese is covered in wax, don't eat it unless you are nostalgic for the wax lips of your childhood. It won't kill you to eat wax but it also will not taste very good. Some chesses have a thick wax coating and others like Manchego or P’tit Basque have a very thin waxy coating. You can cut off these rinds and enjoy your cheese. When serving this type of cheese on a party platter, it is best to cut the wax off the sides of the wedge but leave the wax along the back as it will provide a bit of support while guests cut off chunks.

If a cheese has a wooden belt like Petit Sapin or Winnimere, do not eat the wood. These types of cheeses are best served in the whole with the top rind peeled back and the glorious goo spooned out. But a wedge of Winnimere can also be delicious but as it is a washed rind cheese, the rind will have a more concentrated flavor. The rind is exposed to multiple washings in a brine solution which may contain some kind of alcohol. The salt and flavor will concentrate on the rind with a specific type of red mold called Bacteria Linens. This type of mold is intentional and gives washed rind cheeses their stinky nature. When you see mold whether it is red, white, or blue ask yourself if it was intentional and if it was give it a taste.

Things can get confusing when a cheese is covered in leaves. Valdeon is a wonderful Spanish blue cheese made from goat’s and cow’s milk with a covering of Sycamore leaves. These leaves make a pretty presentation but are not edible. Once again, this will not kill you but won’t help the flavor. Rogue River Blue is a raw cow’s milk blue made in Oregon that is covered in grape leaves soaked in pear brandy. These leaves are edible and offer a unique flavor and texture to the cheese. If the leaves are dry, I would avoid them but it they have been drenched in some kind of alcohol, I may taste them and then decide if they are worth eating.

Really when it comes down to the rind it is a matter of taste preference. Try the rind first and if you don’t like the taste don’t eat it. But please take the rind with you, I hate seeing a sad slice of brie being hollowed out at a party. It is unattractive and leads others to think that the rind is not edible when they might enjoy the taste. It’s like asking someone else to clean up your mess.

The rind on Soft Ripened cheeses like Brie, Camembert, and Humboldt Fog are edible and made from a white mold which is often penicillium candidum and/or geotrichum candidum. Some inexpensive bries and camembert have a rind that is papery and a paste that is firm. That is not what I look for in brie so I skip them. I love d’Affinois which has a very mild rind which lends body to the very creamy paste. But the rind on a soft ripened cheese can become bitter with age. When that is the case, I may choose to discard the rind. Pierre Robert is an indulgent triple crème from France but I often find the rind too bitter and will scoop out the runny paste.

If a cheese has mold that was not intended and has developed with time you might not have to trash the whole chunk. If you have a chunk of cheddar that has gone a bit moldy, cut off the mold until the paste is pure and enjoy. Do not eat a cheese that has cat fur mold, unintended red mold, or smells like urine. If the cheese is a soft, fresh cheese, or a surface ripened cheese, you might have to let it go as it can be hard to remove unwanted molds from these creamy cheeses.

I hope this provides some rind confidence and remember what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger! And a tip, Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds aren't edible but they can be added to soups, stocks, and stews to add a wonderful salty, cheese flavor.