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, http://www.sallyjacksoncheeses.com 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!