By Pete Kennedy, Esq.
With all the laws on the books today favoring industrial food under the guise of protecting the public health, one that stands out is the federal prohibition on fresh cheese (raw cheese aged less than sixty days). The cheeses whose producers are hurt by the sixty-day aging requirement are the soft-ripened and semi-soft cheeses defined in regulation by FDA in the Code of Federal Regulations, 21 CFR 133.182 and 21 CFR 133.187.
The production and sale of fresh cheese has been legal in Europe for centuries, with an excellent overall track record for safety. Moreover, the legal shelf life of a raw cheese like camembert in Europe is only fifty-five days, mainly due to the increased chance of the growth of listeria after that time; so in the U.S., artisan cheesemakers producing camembert or a similar cheese must wait longer than they should have to in order to get paid while being forced into selling a product that has a higher risk of contamination. Each type of cheese has its own pH and moisture level, two among other factors that need to be taken into account before determining the proper aging time for the cheese.
The FDA has no intention of changing its one-size-fits-all aging requirement for cheese, but a recently published book, titled Ending the War on Artisan Cheese, should help any effort to go in that direction. The book, written by Catherine Donnelly who is a professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Vermont, covers in extensive detail how the FDA’s policies on raw cheese aren’t based on science but rather on creating a climate of fear and intimidation against artisan producers to protect and expand the market share of industrial cheese makers.
The FDA actions Donnelly lists against artisan producers include:
During most of the time FDA actions against artisan cheesemakers were occurring under the aegis of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), John Sheehan was the director of FDA-CFSAN’s Division of Dairy, Egg and Meat Products. Monica Metz was the chief for FDA-CFSAN’s Milk and Milk Products Branch; both Sheehan and Metz were former employees of industrial cheesemaker Leprino Foods.9
FDA established the 60-day aging rule in 1950. Donnelly shows that: the regulations were formulated around the behavior of bacterial pathogens such as Salmonella typhi and brucella in Cheddar cheese, the predominant cheese variety produced in the United States in 1950. Cheddar cheese has a low moisture content, high salt content and low pH/high acidity, and these parameters interact to create an environment that is inhospitable to bacterial pathogens, so they die off as cheese ages over the course of sixty days or longer. Not all cheeses share these characteristics, however, and the regulations currently upheld in the CFR have been broadly applied to a number of specified cheese varieties despite scientific evidence that suggests such regulations are inappropriate for certain cheeses, such as soft-ripened varieties like Brie and Camembert.10
For reasons of food safety and quality, soft and semi-soft cheeses should have shorter aging requirements. While it’s true that soft and semisoft cheese have been responsible for more foodborne illness outbreaks than hard cheeses, there is plenty of evidence that these cheeses can be produced safely.
Donnelly herself has been part of a successful effort to produce safe raw cheese through her work with the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC), which has developed risk reduction protocols and process control measures for Vermont artisan cheesemakers that have resulted in more sanitary facilities. When FDA conducted nationwide environmental sampling for listeria at soft cheese firms, not a single Vermont cheese facility tested had a positive test for listeria out of one hundred to three hundred environmental swabs taken at each facility.11
FDA has more than shown it is interested only in destroying artisan cheesemakers, but the legislative process is a vehicle to lower and/or eliminate aging requirements to allow the sale of fresh cheese. There is no prohibition against the sale of unaged raw cheese in intrastate commerce; Wyoming, Kansas and some seventy to eighty towns in Maine currently allow the direct producer-to-consumer sale of fresh raw cheese. Fresh cheese is a great opportunity for small farmers and local artisans to produce a safe, nutritious product. The demand and the safety protocols are in place to make that happen.
This article was first published in the Spring 2020 issue of Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation.