rawmilkcheese_406x250Vermont’s congressional delegation is upset with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the agency’s recommendations for the allowable level of a certain bacteria in raw milk cheese. According to Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the new edition of the FDA Compliance Program Guidance Manual released earlier this year reduced the standard for allowable non-toxigenic E. coli in cheese from 10,000 most probable number (MPN) per gram to 10 MPN per gram. Most E. coli bacteria are harmless or even beneficial to the human intestinal tract, but generic E. coli has traditionally been used as a microbiological indicator of the lack of adequate sanitation during processing. FDA’s most recent guidance released in December 2010 states that “Dairy products may be considered adulterated … when Escherichia coli is found at levels greater than 10 MPN per gram in two or more subsamples or greater than 100 MPN per gram in one or more subsamples.” A spokesperson for FDA told Food Safety News that “current science indicates that FDA’s guidance for non-toxigenic E. coli represents an appropriate limit to ensure sanitary conditions of a dairy product,” but that the agency welcomes new information from stakeholders. In August, FDA called for the public to submit information regarding possible ways of dealing with pathogens in cheeses manufactured from unpasteurized milk. The comment period for that request closed Nov. 2. Most commenters support continued availability of raw milk cheeses and asked the agency not to impose more “burdensome regulations” on the relatively small industry for fear of being forced out of business. Some argued to keep the 60-day aging rule for raw milk cheese, while others argued to abandon it. Many wanted the performance criteria for non-toxigenic E.coli done away with. “We are concerned that this standard could have a detrimental effect on cheese producers in our districts,” the lawmakers wrote on Thursday, Dec. 3, to Michael Taylor, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine. In addition to the Vermont delegation, the letter was signed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers from New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Maine, Connecticut, Oregon, California, Virginia, New York, Michigan, and Texas. They asked that the agency reconsider whether the standard is commensurate with the risk to public health. “The new standard will severely limit the production of raw milk cheeses across the country,” the letter read. “Such a drastic step would only be justified were these cheeses presenting a demonstrable public health risk, which, to date, we have not seen evidence of.”

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)