Raw milk cheeses like Roquefort, English Cheddar, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Comté are considered to be the paragons of the cheese world. The pinnacles of cheese making art. The ultimate selections on the perfect cheese board.
So how did they end up in the middle of a health debate?
Raw milk cheeses are made with milk that has not been pasteurised. And according to some medical professionals, that makes eating them a risky gastronomical endeavour.
Raw Milk Cheese Warnings
A number of food safety agencies around the world have warned consumers about the perils of eating raw milk cheese. They claim unpasteurised milk cheese carries a higher risk for bacterial infection than the pasteurised variety.
How so? When milk is pasteurised, it is heated and held at a high temperature for a set amount of time. This kills harmful bacteria in the milk, including E. coli, salmonella, listeria, campylobacter, and more.
Because raw milk cheese is not treated with this process, it is more likely to harbour harmful bacteria. If the raw milk is somehow contaminated with bacteria during the milking or cheese process, that bacteria will be present in the finished cheese.
In Australia, there is a wide ban on raw milk cheese. However, recent exceptions have been made for French Roquefort as well as Gruyère, Emmental, and Sbrinz from Switzerland.
In the United States, raw milk cheese is allowed, but it must be aged a minimum of 60 days. (The thought here is that after 60 days, the acids and salts developed in the cheese will prevent salmonella, listeria, and E. coli from growing.)
Any cheese aged fewer than 60 days must be made from pasteurised milk to be sold in the U.S. That’s why you’ll find many pasteurised versions of traditional raw milk cheeses like Brie, Reblochon, and Chevre, over there.
If you’re in the UK and you’re a concerned cheese-loving consumer, just make a practice of reading labels. In the UK, consider yourself lucky to have the option of buying cheeses made with unpasteurised milk as there are no regulations apart from the stipulation that the package carries a clear warning label.
Raw Milk Cheese Flavour and Quality
True cheese connoisseurs find the government bans and regulations on raw milk cheese not only unfair, but also unfortunate. Any French cheese lover knows a classic, raw milk Camembert reaches peak creaminess, flavour, and aroma at 21 to 30 days – not 60! But does ageing or pasteurisation of raw milk really affect cheese quality?
Proponents of raw milk cheese say: “yes.” They argue pasteurisation may intend to kill harmful bacteria in the milk, but it also destroys desirable enzymes – the ones that create the unique flavours, textures and aromas of traditional cheese.
Researchers at France’s Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique would have to agree. In a study, they made the same cheeses with both raw and pasteurised milk, and found the flavours of the raw milk cheese to be richer and more complex.
Their conclusion? Pasteurising raw milk actually alters the chemistry and biology of cheese ripening, thereby affecting the texture and flavour of the final cheese product.
The Raw Milk Cheese Movement
Anyone who’s had the pleasure of tasting authentic raw milk Epoisses or Manchego knows the flavours are unparalleled. Pasteurised or aged versions of these traditional cheeses may taste good, but a bit “cooked” or even bland in comparison.
Those who favour raw milk cheeses say that’s because raw milk cheeses are made as nature intended. They compare unpasteurised cheeses to fine wine, in that they capture the flavour and essence of the region where they are produced; the terroir.
And of course, traditional cheeses were made with raw milk for thousands of years before the pasteurisation process was created. Perhaps that’s why groups like Slow Food, Cheese of Choice Coalition, and the Raw Milk Cheesemakers’ Association are working to defend the right for raw milk cheeses to be crafted and enjoyed for years to come.
Is Raw Milk Cheese Safe?
Many say the health concerns over unpasteurised cheese are overblown. Gastronomes point out that Europeans have been consuming raw milk cheeses without monstrous ill effects. And around the world, scientists have conducted studies to demonstrate the safety of raw milk cheese.
In fact, the Australian government has recently published a report indicating cheese producers are capable of making raw milk cheeses equivalent in safety to those that are pasteurised. In Canada, government officials in Quebec have just legalised the sale of raw milk cheeses aged fewer than 60 days.
The truth is, every food product must be handled properly to be safe. Even pasteurised milk can become contaminated; it’s not sterile. In fact, in Europe, most cheese-related food poisoning incidents have been traced back to pasteurised milk cheeses.
Whatever decision you come to make about raw milk cheese, it’s likely the debate about health risks and traditional quality will continue to rage on. However, there is general consensus about one thing: Raw milk cheese should not be eaten by those who are pregnant, immune-deficient, elderly, or under the age of two. If that applies to you, please consult your GP before biting into that chunk of Feta.