(This article by Lincoln Broadbooks was originally published Sept. 29, 2014, on the Kansas City Star’s Chow Town site and is reposted here with his permission.) Raw-milk cheese has been in the news over the past couple months. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been reviewing its raw-milk standards for cheese for the past several years, and many think it will soon make a decision that will affect the small artisan cheese producers in the United States and Europe. The most recent dustup has come by way of a hold by FDA on imports from Europe of certain cheeses it deemed unfit for consumption. FDA’s statement on the issue can be read here. The “problem” was found in several traditional raw-milk cheeses that we know well, Roquefort being the most well-known. You can read the long list of affected cheeses on FDA Import Alert #12-10 here. Something called nontoxigenic E. coli is to blame for the hold on these cheeses. At first glance, most people would say, “Well, good, I don’t want cheese to be let into the U.S. that is contaminated with E. coli.” Right? Except that this type of E. coli does not make people sick. FDA noted that the high levels of this type of E. coli in cheese is a sign that the cheese was produced in unsanitary conditions. But that is not necessarily the case, as the FDA pointed out in 2009. Check out this article here to learn more about FDA’s change of heart. I am not a microbiologist, but I do know that there are a lot of scary-sounding bacteria in cheese that are perfectly fine to eat, and I am willing to let the cheese makers’ tradition, expertise and vast knowledge of their products be the authority on which bacteria are fine. Why is that? For one thing, there are many layers of government regulation in Europe, and the cheese culture there has been in place for many hundreds of years. Personally, I don’t think we should take Europe’s lead on too many things, but on this I am willing to yield to their local governments and the European Union. As far as I know, there are no European cheese producers sending cheese to the U.S. that they would not sell in Europe. I suspect the reason for the lack of news like that is because the layers of EU regulations would not allow it. And it’s a business, and they want to make money. It would be rather obtuse for them to send cheese through U.S. Customs that was “contaminated” by unsanitary production. Sounds like a good way to lose money. It seems the problem is FDA. Obviously FDA does a lot to ensure the safety of our food supply, and we definitely need some government entity to do that, but shouldn’t the first rule be, “If it is not going to make someone sick, leave it alone”? And, in most other cases, a warning should be enough for people to make their own choices. Take raw milk and raw-milk cheese, for instance. There are some risks associated with them, especially to the very old, very young and people with immunity problems. But that does not mean we should not have the choice to consume them. A simple warning on a label would do. While they are at it, they could put warnings on almost every other product that has the potential to make you sick. Which is pretty much everything we eat. I believe the issue runs deeper than just raw milk and raw-milk cheese. We as a society have become a people who don’t really want choice. We want someone who “knows better” to make the choice for us. It’s easier that way. But we need to realize that, in most cases, we have the knowledge and common sense to make good sound decisions about what we eat with minimal risk to our heath and lives.

  • warreni

    Would we allow people to sell raw ground-beef hamburgers in a restaurant? I’m hoping the answer is “no”, but these “get rid of the nanny state” people seem to feel that everyone should be free to jam whatever deadly concoctions people can conceive and create down their gullets. These are also the people who protest the loudest when those who are injured by the negligence of food producers sue for damages and grouse about “unfriendly business climates.” We have regulations for a reason and it’s pretty much to keep people from making bad decisions that will injure or kill them or others.
    Raw milk is dangerous and it should not be sold anywhere.

  • Carlo Silvestr

    Can’t I make my own decision? If I bought gorgonzola made from raw milk, ate it and got sick, I bought it, my choice, my responsibility. If I wanted to order beef tartare at a restaurant, wouldn’t I choose the restaurant and choose what I wanted to eat? I eat, I get sick, my responsibility!

    • Why don’t they let vehicles that are produced to be unsafe? or toys for children? Are you recommending we do away with all regulation, and just let people “choose” the good one? I hope the implications of that are clear enough that I don’t have to list them. Also, eating raw meat/dairy/poultry dangerous to you, but also anybody you come in contact with. You can spread foodborne illness after getting sick yourself pretty easily. Sometimes people show no signs, but are still carriers. A lot of places do allow undercooked product as long as they have a sign warning customers of the dangers. I think at a minimum, raw dairy should come with the same restrictions.

      • Carlo Silvestr

        Do you really think that the USDA and the FDA have the safety of the public as their prime objective? If so, why are so many of the top echelons of these and other governmental regulatory agencies filled with industry folk? Regulations on automobiles certainly didn’t stop General Motors from putting out cars with faulty ignition switches, resulting in a number of fatalities.

  • “While I wouldn’t drink raw milk because it is low in calcium”

    I meant low in vitamin D. Sorry. Raw milk is not fortified with vitamin D.

  • FoodSci

    You know what’s scary-sounding? This: “I am not a microbiologist, but I do know that there are a lot of scary-sounding bacteria in cheese that are perfectly fine to eat, and I am willing to let the cheese makers’ tradition, expertise and vast knowledge of their products be the authority on which bacteria are fine.”
    Because cheese-makers are public health and food safety experts, since when?

  • So much for the USA being the land of the free (and the brave) – time to rediscover John Stuart Mill’s views on Liberty (and a bit of backbone as well as a sense of proportionality when it comes to assessing risks): “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant . . . Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

    Cheese made from raw milk rarely causes any harm – you are more likely to be killed in road crash on the way to the farmers’ market than you are to die from eating raw-milk cheese.