Everything you know about cheese is a lie

Americans have never had access to the cheese they deserve.

Everything you know about cheese is a lie

Americans have never had access to the cheese they deserve.

The vast majority of Americans have never eaten proper Camembert cheese. Sure, there are plenty of little wheels stacked in shops nationwide, labeled “Camembert.” They’re creamy, earthy, and just a little pungent; they taste fine. But they lack the subtle microbial punch and complexity of the Camembert found in France. And it’s not just Camembert: Most Americans have also never tasted the full potential of proper Brie, Epoisses, or Roquefort, among the highlights of any cheese snob’s must-have list, or even the better types of mozzarella, the most popular cheese in America.

This isn’t an elitist most people think they’re drinking champagne but it’s only real if it comes from Champagne, France critique. The opinions of protectionist European regulators aside, there are plenty of legitimate varieties of Brie or Camembert or what have you in the States. Still, you cannot find their most desirable variants, even at the most cultured American cheese monger’s shop, because many of the world’s most fascinating and sought after cheeses are made with unpasteurized milk, aged less than 60 days, which the feds deem so dangerous that it’s illegal to make them in or import them into the United States. And this rule is not arcane. It is enforced.

“It is generally accepted that raw-milk cheeses have the potential for more complex, subtle, and diverse flavor,” Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont, an acclaimed artisanal cheese maker, told The Outline. (Most cheese makers call unpasteurized milk “raw.”) It’s a result of all the good or neutral bacteria in milk straight from the ungulate, which translate to unique flavors. Pasteurization burns out all the microbes in milk, good and bad, drastically limiting the notes it can bring to dairy products, leading some aficionados to label pasteurized milk cheeses as dead. “There is a whole category of cheeses that is currently ‘off the table’ for us,” added Kehler.

America’s regulatory hatred for young raw milk cheeses may strike some observers as odd. After all, Europe is fine with them; they make up 15 percent of France’s massive cheese market. And in the popular imagination, European food regulators are more cautious than their American counterparts. They restrict the use of a disturbing number of hormones and chemicals on health grounds that the US government is happy to see pumped into crops and livestock, and ban several American food items. American regulators, meanwhile, okay a certain amount of wood pulp in your Parmesan.

In truth, America’s rule against young raw milk cheese was promulgated about 80 years ago. It was a legitimate reaction to a public health threat at the time, but in recent decades, it’s become clear that old rule is outdated. Many in America have started to see culinary and economic value in the cheeses it bans, yet there’s been little effort to overhaul America’s cheese regulations to make room for more raw milk cheese, while maintaining safety. Instead, several times over the past few decades, regulators have made noise about strengthening existing rules, to the extent that some artisanal American cheese makers have worried they could totally kill off what little, restricted raw milk cheese making and importation still goes on in the U.S.

So what gives?

Until the mid-19th century, all cheese in America was made with raw milk. No one much cared how long it was aged, save as a matter of taste and tradition. Raw milk spoils easily, and is a great home for germs, so, hygiene as we know it being largely non-existent at the time, this might have seemed like a recipe for disaster. Since most cheese was produced on farmsteads with milk fresh from the cow, using tried and true (non-sickening) techniques, it wasn’t a huge issue.

But as railroads and industrialization took off, dairy moved from homesteads to factories and increasingly pooled milk from multiple farms. One bad batch, spoiled due to improper handling or storage or exposure to any number of contaminants, could cause massive outbreaks of foodborne illness. By the turn of the 20th century, almost all American cheese making had gone industrial, unlike in some European nations. As affordable pasteurization machines came on the market, larger dairies adopted the technique as a means of ensuring safety without having to worry about and monitor intensively for bad milk batches and other forms of pre-manufacture contamination. In 1908, Chicago became the first city in America to require all milk and dairy be pasteurized. But regulation was piecemeal and slow over the next several decades, as foodborne illness remained low and the federal government didn’t yet want a role in aggressive food safety intervention.

Then in the 1940s, the United States government started ordering massive shipments of cheese to feed allied and American soldiers in World War II in Europe. Increasing demand crashed into a lack of dairy-making skill, due to the manpower drain of the war effort, and dairy-related illness, which had been creeping up during the 1930s, exploded. According to a study from 1946, between 1883 and 1931, there’d been just 17 cheese-related disease outbreaks in North America, but between 1935 and 1945, there were 40, which led to 1,741 documented sickenings and 47 known deaths. Most were linked to raw milk cheeses consumed soon after they were manufactured.

In 1944, the federal government, by then firmly enmeshed in the American cheese industry and concerned by the number of outbreaks, recommended that all cheese be made from pasteurized milk or that raw milk cheeses be aged sufficiently to let nasty germs in it die off. States started to adopt pasteurization regulations, but for producers who didn’t want to deal with that process, whether for taste, tradition, or lack of practical access to the machines needed for it, they came up with a wide range of acceptable aging dates as well. So to facilitate interstate commerce, the federal government started to develop its own nationwide rule in 1947.

“Unfortunately, scientific research on the behavior of pathogens in cheese during aging was scant at the time,” says University of Connecticut cheese safety expert Dennis D’Amico. “Since no reported outbreaks had been recorded from cheese held at 60 or more days,” they deemed that a reasonable timeline. But, D’Amico added, they based this on Cheddar, the most common type of cheese in America at the time, which is hardly a decent stand-in for every type of cheese.

Raw milk cheese advocates today argue that this means the rule was unscientific, all but arbitrary, though modern food safety experts argue it was rational, given the science of the era. Other Anglophone nations developed similar guidelines, while many states stuck with even stricter laws, requiring up to 120 days of aging for raw milk cheeses.

Regardless of the merits of the rule at the time, no one bothered to review it until the late 1980s. D’Amico suspects this was because there wasn’t much raw milk cheese making in the U.S. for almost 40 years. Pasteurized Cheddars and processed “American cheeses” were king. There were also few cheese-related outbreaks — just six that D’Amico can trace from 1948 to 1988, only one of which involved raw milk. The rule didn’t come into play much, and it didn’t seem broken.

The cheese cellar at artisanal cheese maker Jasper Hill Farm.

The cheese cellar at artisanal cheese maker Jasper Hill Farm.

In the 1970s, Americans started to go back to the land, to disconnect from industrialized life and reconnect with nature. According Heather Paxson, an MIT anthropologist who researches America’s artisanal cheese community, they saw raw milk cheese making as a great outlet for that.

“Raw milk cheese, and the care and consideration required to produce them safely, provide a link to our collective history,” enthused Kehler. “Raw milk cheese provides a connection to a place, to people, to agricultural production systems that are values driven, and to our primordial past.”

In the decades since, others have jumped on the bandwagon, whether out of similar philosophical impulses, epicurean interests, or beliefs in the probiotic value of more animate cheeses. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deny there are any potential health benefits to eating raw milk cheeses.) Hundreds of small cheese makers now operate in America, about 38 percent of whom produce legal raw milk cheeses. And demand for artisanal cheese in the US is growing. Cheese industry experts and government officials alike view the rise of these small farming outfits as a boon for struggling rural economies, and a great way of wrenching new value out of dairy as the plain milk consumption and prices plummet. According to Nora Weiser of the American Cheese Society, many of these emerging artisans are eager to explore young raw milk cheeses making.

There’s good reason to re-evaluate the 60-day aging rule rule. Researchers have learned in the decades since it was promulgated that, in some cheeses, bacteria can survive past 60 days. They’ve also discovered new pathogens that don’t act like the bacteria the original rule makers were aware of. Cheese experts have pointed out that in some soft raw milk cheeses, levels of dangerous microbes actually increase as they age, because they don’t dry and harden like Cheddar. All of us have also become increasingly aware of how much can go wrong after manufacturing, and the problems that neither aging nor pasteurization can solve. Some researchers argue pasteurized cheeses may be more prone to post-manufacture contamination, as they’ve lost all the good bacteria that could fight bad bacterial intrusions.

Meanwhile, Europe has developed rules that accommodate all manner of raw milk cheese but still keep people relatively safe, broadly working with existing traditions to find steps at which hygiene can be monitored and ensured. In 2008, Canada let Quebec abandon the country’s rules, which resemble America’s by and large, and move towards the European model. The sky did not fall.

Since the 1990s, some in the artisanal cheese industry have called for a shift from the simplistic 60-day rule to a more nuanced safety monitoring system, like those now used for meat, poultry, and seafood. One basic proposal would entail mapping all the stages of production at which a cheese could be contaminated and enacting verifiable safeguards at each of them. It’d be an intensive, expensive process. But in theory, it would accommodate production of the most pungent, runny, and horrifyingly delectable cheeses imaginable, including now forbidden varieties.

Raw milk cheese, and the care and consideration required to produce them safely, provide a link to our collective history.
Jasper Hill Farm’s Mateo Kehler

Federal regulators also started to re-evaluate the 60-day rule in the 1990s, but not for the reasons or in the light artisanal cheese makers would have hoped for. In 1985, America suffered one of its greatest modern foodborne illness outbreaks, which killed over two-dozen people, ten of them infants. It was traced to a cheese plant using raw milk. A recent study by the CDC shows there were a couple dozen more outbreaks in the U.S. linked to raw milk cheeses in the 1990s and 2000s, a rate of sickening relative to production levels 150 times higher than for pasteurized cheeses.

D’Amico argues that few if any of these outbreaks are traceable to cheeses produced in line with safety regulations. The 1985 incident involved a cheese for which workers surreptitiously used a partial batch of raw milk. And most of the subsequent outbreaks involved cheeses manufactured illegally, often at home, or smuggled into the country, produced under unknown safety conditions and exposed to spoilage and contamination in transit.

But after the 1985 incident, calls emerged to ban all raw milk cheese. In the mid-1990s, as the feds caught on to the documentation of new pathogens, and the ability of some microbes to survive past 60 days, officials (and industrial cheese makers) got behind talk of an outright ban as well, though they never went through with it. Artisanal cheese advocates claim that as a win, but no one’s actually totally sure why they backed off.

Another wave of scrutiny hit after the passage of a major new food safety law in 2011, which triggered the re-evaluation of a number of existing rules. During a peak of cheese-related activity in 2014, the FDA, among other actions, banned the import of three raw milk cheeses because, they said, they’d drastically lowered their standards for acceptable levels non-toxic bacteria — years ago, and without telling cheese makers. This was a fine move to better ensure safety in pasteurized cheeses, where there should be minimal bacteria of any kind, but it could have functionally banned production of even most legal raw milk cheeses, where high levels of non-toxic bacteria are often a good sign. By 2015, food writers were speculating that someone in the FDA must have had it out for, or at least was unaware of the best modern science on and alternative regulatory frameworks proposed for, raw milk cheeses. (According to Paxson, it’s likely the latter; at a conference in 2012, she told an audience of researchers and cheese makers that "inspectors are not really well versed in the subtleties of cheese. Not even the basics.")

Tasting a new cheese.

Tasting a new cheese.

Then some elected officials intervened, essentially spanking the FDA for some of its artisan cheese-killing new rulings and calling on the regulators to work closer with cheese makers on new rules. In early 2016, the agency backed down on its new acceptable bacteria levels and promised to do just that.

Weiser of the American Cheese Society says that there is now regular feedback between the FDA and artisanal cheese makers. She and other raw milk cheese advocates have officially proposed a new cheese categorization framework to the agency that would allow them to set different aging standards for different types of raw milk cheese, potentially accommodating the production of at least some previously illegal young raw milk cheeses.

But the FDA is by its mandate a cautious body. “If raw milk advocates want to change the rules,” added Cornell University dairy policy expert Andrew Novakovic, “they will need to demonstrate that those products have the same safety reliability as exist with the current standards, and do it with research that withstands the scrutiny of the scientific community.” That kind of research requires time and money, the latter of which Weiser acknowledges artisanal cheese makers don’t have tons to spare. And even if presented with new science, it’d take ages for the agency to review it all, then develop economically and practically viable regulations from it as well.

The barriers to advancing any new system may explain why, when confronted with outbreaks or the new mandate of the FSMA in recent decades, the FDA just looked to tighten existing regulations. If pushed for fast action, it’s a lot easier to reinforce the wheel rather than reinvent it. All things considered, said Carlos Yescas of the raw milk cheese advocacy group the Oldways Cheese Coalition, some in the artisanal community believe it’s best just to let things be. Since the FDA’s backed off for now, “do we want to just not rock the boat anymore and let it be?” he mused. “The system is not perfect, but at least we have certainty,” rather than the constant threat of tightening screws.

That wouldn’t be the worst thing. Despite the restrictions of the 60-day rule, American cheese makers have still managed to roll out some amazing, innovative raw milk cheeses, which have begun to cultivate their own international reputations. At last year’s big cheese festival in Bari, Italy, three American creameries wowed skeptical European audiences — a landmark moment. And the Americans most desperate to get their hands on illicit cheeses will find their own way to them.

It’s just shocking to realize how much of America’s food ecosystem, and ultimately of our palates as Americans, were locked into place decades ago by chance forces and best-guess science. But that’s how one winds up in a nation where it is, and likely will for some time be, easier to get an assault rifle than a wheel of OG French Camembert.

Mark Hay is a freelance writer, covering food, politics, and sex. His writings have appeared in publications from Aeon to VICE.