Editor’s note: Each spring, attorneys Bill Marler and Denis Stearns teach a Food Safety Litigation course in the LL.M Program in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. This specialized program for attorneys brings together those who are interested in our food system, from farm to table. As a final assignment, students are asked to write an op-ed or essay on food safety, with the best to be selected for publication in Food Safety News. The following is one of the essays for 2021.
By Julie Linck
Cheese is popular throughout the world because of its associated health benefits and outstanding flavor. From natural probiotic and anti-tumor properties to its high dietary calcium and proteins, what’s not to love about cheese? But wait, what you don’t know about cheese can harm you. Read on to learn more about the proper safety, selection, and storage protocols before you cut the cheese.
In order to enjoy cheese, while protecting your health, here are some basic safety ground rules. First, pregnant women, older adults and people with weakened immunity should avoid eating soft cheeses, such as queso fresco, queso blanco, panel known as queso panela, brie, Camembert, blue-veined, or feta, unless it is labeled as made with pasteurized milk — and even then, it is probably not the best roll of the dice. Simply put, if you’re eating soft cheese made with raw milk, you are 50 and 160 times more likely to contract a listeria infection. And, there is no mystery about the severity of listeria. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the estimated 1,600 people who get listeria each year, a whopping 94 percent are hospitalized and about 260 die! Think about that. Of the 1,600 who contract listeria annually, 1,500 will be hospitalized. One doesn’t need to be a Jimmy “The Greek” level oddsmaker to understand that eating soft cheese made with raw milk isn’t a good bet. Although cheese is generally considered a safe food, especially cheese made with pasteurized milk, it is estimated that about 0.4 percent of foodborne outbreaks worldwide are related to contaminated cheese.
Many of these foodborne outbreaks resulted from contamination with Staphylococcus aureus, which is not surprising because S. aureus often causes mastitis in cows, leading to milk contamination. Additionally, currently in the United States, S. aureus and Listeria monocytogenes were isolated from unpasteurized soft cheese. In fact, there’s a current recall of listeria-contaminated Mexican-style queso fresco made by El Abuelito Cheese Inc., after the contaminated product infected people in the states of Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, and New York. One of the patients died.
Some of these problems arise from the fundamental properties of soft cheese — like its high water activity and low acidity — making it a more risky endeavor from the jump. But, it also falls prey, like any dairy product, to the occasional improper sanitation that is a common route for pathogenic bacteria to contaminate the cheese during the cheese-making process. Taken together, cheese-related foodborne illnesses have been generally linked to soft cheese or cheese made from raw or unpasteurized milk, but rarely hard cheese.
Whether a cheese stays soft or hardens has to do with the moisture that is left in the curds and the temperature at which it is cooked. How big you cut the curds is also important — the smaller the curd, the more liquid that gets released. As cheese ages, it loses more of its moisture as well. But in some cheeses, the aging process can break down some molecules in the cheese, making it soft again. Most cheese is aged for some amount of time, but rarely longer than a year or two. However, some cheddars are aged up to 40 years. With the outstanding flavor of cheese, seriously, who has the willpower to resist?
But, willpower or not, once the cheese is properly aged you should not let it do that for too much longer in your refrigerator. While some cheeses, like Parmesan, can last more than half a year unopened, others like Gouda or mozzarella last only maybe a month and a half. The general rule is to eat your cheese within a few days of bringing it home. Other than that, take the date on the label into consideration. Always make sure the “cut date” of the cheese is within a day of purchase. And always, always go with your gut. If the cheese starts to smell sour or off in any way, throw it out. Same thing if it does not look as good as it used to — specifically, if the color of the cheese has darkened or faded, this could indicate a problem. Also look for changes in the texture of the cheese, and if you notice anything slimy on the surface or bloating in the package discard immediately.
After completing the initial investigation, if you are not sure whether a cheese has gone bad, check for the most obvious sign that there is something wrong with your cheese — the presence of mold that is not natural to that particular variety. If there is mold on shredded hard cheese, throw out the entire container. But, when it comes to that “white stuff” that grows on some hard cheeses, do not confuse it with mold. These “cheese crystals” are normal on many varieties of long-aged hard cheese, and you can eat them. But note, the same rules do not apply for soft cheese varieties. Any sign of mold or slime signals that the cheese is past its safety prime, and it should be immediately thrown out.
Although cheese tastes best at room temperature, it will last longer when refrigerated. Not to mention that drastic temperature changes are not good for your cheese. Never freeze cheese after its been out of the refrigerator for more than an hour. In fact, never freeze any cheese except when its absolutely necessary and only then when its a hard cheese. It will not work out well when thawed as the dramatic temperature variance will adversely impact the cheese’s taste and texture.
Over time your cheese may dry out, especially if you do not store it properly. But, no fear, the dry part is perfectly edible it just might not be the tastiest chunk of cheese you’ve ever consumed. Cheesemongers recommend that you either cut off and discard the dried out portion, or use it for melting, where the dryness is not a factor. But it is best to avoid the drying out in the first place, which requires a bit of know how in the proper way to store your cheese.
“Keeping cheese fresh in the refrigerator is tricky,” says Lisa McManus, the executive tasting and testing editor at America’s Test Kitchen. “As cheese releases moisture, tight wrappings encourage mold; loose ones let it dry out and harden.”
Experts recommend that specialty cheese paper and bags are the best solution for striking this delicate balance because they allow cheese to breath while maintaining humidity. The end goal, according to McManus is to allow moisture to wick off the cheese but not escape entirely. But what if you do not have the fancy schmancy specialty products available to you?
McManus gives a few tips for us everyday cheesy people. She recommends loosely wrapping the cheese with parchment or wax paper, which still protects it from drying, while keeping it exposed to the air and humidity it needs. Or, alternatively, a cheese dome, which allows the cheese to create its own temperature and humidity. And, if you are like me and your home has no dome, try — of all things — vinegar. Evidently, putting a small dab of vinegar on a paper towel before storing your cheese will help save it from mold. The vinegar acts as a kind of barrier and retards the growth of mold, says Venae Watts, a fifth-generation member of one of America’s oldest family- owned creameries, Minerva Dairy. “You might be thinking your cheese will taste like vinegar when you go to eat it, but it won’t,” Watts promises.
And, here is a doozy, you should not store cheese in its original packaging, even for a minute. Cheese experts advise that cheese should be rewrapped immediately when you get home. But, not before you wash your hands.
“The most important thing about handling cheese is that you start with clean hands and clean kitchen tools. If handled properly with clean hands and clean utensils, you can really mitigate mold growth by reducing the introduction of bacteria,” says Amanda Freund, Cabot Creamery Cooperative Farmer.
And, while there is no exception to the hand-washing rule, you can skip the immediate removal of the cheese from its packing, without cheesing off the mongers, if the wrapping is a thin wood or cardboard package with a porous plastic overwrap. If your cheese comes in this type of packaging, it is fine to leave the cheese be until it is opened. Then, it’s recommended that you store any remaining uneaten cheese in a “fresh piece of cheese paper,” says Wells.
A few final pointers on keeping your cheese fresh, preserving its flavor, and maximizing its shelf life —It may be a pain, but store cheese in separate containers and rewrap the cheese in a new sheet of cheese paper each time you take a nibble. It is also advised that you “record the name of the cheese and the date on the outside of the paper,” says Wells. And, if you’ve been storing your cheese on the top shelf of your refrigerator, for easy access, of course, you’ve been doing it wrong. When storing your cheese in the fridge, it is recommended that you keep it in a drawer in your refrigerator because it is a bit warmer in the drawer. According to Watts, the coldest part of your refrigerator will likely be too cold. The crisper drawers not only have a better temperature, they have the added benefit of protecting the humidity that the cheese needs to breathe.
Oh, and this column would not be complete without at least a mention of the American staple, Velveeta, which has been around since 1918. Here’s the bottom line, it’s not cheese. Although real cheese was originally a part of the recipe, today it is primarily milk protein concentrate and whey protein concentrate mixed with fat, milk, preservatives, and stabilizers, which the FDA doesn’t officially recognize as cheese. In fact, the FDA is so serious about this product not being considered cheese, in 2002, Velveeta’s official designation was changed from Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread to Pasteurized Recipe Cheese Product. But, it is not a bullet-proof commodity; the cheese-like product should never be stored in the heat and should not be eaten “unmelted.” If you’ve never tried a slice with a cracker, ask one of your college-aged kids how that worked out for them.
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