In March 2000, Oldways and the The American Cheese Society joined forces to assemble an international coalition- the Cheese of Choice Coalition – in response to the murmurs that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was threatening to change the regulations about the sale of raw milk cheeses. The United States allows the sale of raw milk cheeses aged for more than 60 days, under the assumption that 60 days of aging is enough for the acids and salts in cheese to help protect against harmful pathogens like listeria, salmonella, and E. coli. The coalition’s mission is to fight to preserve the rights of individuals to buy unpasteurized (raw milk) cheeses. (Oldways) Raw milk activist and naturopathic physician Ron Schmid characterizes microbiopolitics of pasteurized milk this way: “Pasteur’s mechanistic understanding of disease took away the individual’s power to prevent it, and placed the mandate to cure squarely in the hands of the medical professionals” (Paxson) . For Schmid, the the power to prevent illness from raw milk consumption includes both government regulations and knowledge in medical professionals as well as careful production practices by the individual. That milk from small herds of grass-fed cattle that never see a feed lot contains beneficial bacteria to cultivate diverse intestinal ﬂora and fauna that could enable the human body to protect itself from disease. After Pasteur, the realm of food safety has practically became a medicalization of food and eating and people want to be able to accept in the potentialities of collaborative human and microbial cultural practices.
Heather Paxson is an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Anthropology studying America’s artisanal cheesemakers, a politically mobilized group of small-scale farmers and artisans who crave the freedom to produce and eat any kind of cheese they desire, in opposition to government regulations. Paxson has defined American artisinal cheesemakers as those who use “sensory evaluation in their cheesemaking, such as running a finger through freshly set curd to decide if it’s ready to cut.” As of 2010, the number of these artisinal dairy farms in American was just under 400. (Gudrais) A handful of these creameries have been making cheese for a century or more, passing down the knowledge through generations. However, a majority of American artisanal cheesemaking began in the 1980s, and it was around this time that local farming and dairying gained popularity in a response to the ‘back-to-the-land’ movement. Most of these new cheesemakers, serious about their craft, looked to methods tested by time by visiting Europe or corresponding with farmers there to determine which types of cheese and which grazing animals did well in climates similar to the locations of their own creameries. (Gudrais) The larger part of raw milk cheeses made in the US are made on a very small scale with milk from the maker’s own animals or from neighboring farms and without factory equipment. Compared to industrial cheese manufacturing facilities, the risk of contamination is non-existent for these small-scale family farmers – such as the Lazor family.
For the cheesemaker, the difference between pastuerization and raw milk is that pastuerization neutralizes enzymes and bacteria that develop the unique textures and flavors and produce character and complexity unique to that cheesemaker’s cheese. Many claim that it is impossible to find in that from pasteurized milk. (Although, it must be said that there are great cheeses made from pastuerized milk.) It is also claimed that pasteurization destroys enzymes and bacteria that have health benefits. The French go as far as to call cheese made from pasteurised milk as dead cheese – and that is the whole point of the pasteurisation process — death. Although the Food and Drug Administration states pasteurization reducing milk’s nutritional value as a myth, (FDA) there is no mention by the FDA about having pasteurized cheese that is great tasting.
All cheese producers, industrial and artisan alike, face restrictions on getting raw-milk cheese to U.S. markets. By U.S. law (21 CFR 133.182), cheese made from raw milk must be aged at least 60 days at a temperature no less than 1.7◦C (35◦ F) before being sold or imported. The 60-day rule means to offer protection against pathogenic microbes that could thrive in the moist environment of a soft cheese. While the FDA views raw-milk cheese as a potential biohazard, riddled with bad bugs, aﬁcionados see it as the reverse: as a traditional food made by the action of “good” microorganisms—bacteria, yeast, mold—on proteins found in milk that serve to protect the cheese from more harmful microflora. However, The FDA’s rules are not about to loosen. But if artisanal cheese-makers can’t alter America’s pasteurization laws, what options remain for them?
CREATIVITY WITHIN BOUNDARIES
And so, cheesemakers have learned how to adapt by refining their craft within America’s long-standing rules. Paxson noted that as a result, some cheesemakers have developed their own styles and what has started as a form of small-business protest could yet yield artisanal and economic innovations, altering the taste and availability of cheese in America. “They can make an unpasteurized bloomy rind cheese, like a Camembert, last eight weeks, while in France it might last four weeks.” Other cheese-makers are taking commercially available bacterial cultures,” says Paxson “and figuring out how to blend them to get that rich and complex flavor” even with pasteurized milk. This still fits within her view of what it is to be an artisanal cheesemaker in the first place: “To have a feel for the milk, to have a sense of how to adjust the process in response to changes in the milk.” Moreover, Paxson says, “People are saying Americans are getting better at making cheese from pasteurized milk than the Europeans are, because they’ve had to.” (Dizikes)
Corporate dairies can live within the rules. In fact, through heavy lobbying of state and federal governments they write regulations to suit their operations. But for the niche dairy farmers, the same regulations are major impediments for their livelihood. It’s an strange situation – while politicians decry the demise of the family farm, they pass laws that in the name of food-safety that undermine these enterprising farmers. In terms of food safety, however, the US government says it knows best, and, what’s good for the giant dairies is good for the small family-size dairy farm. The government writes a single set of regulations that are designed for the huge dairy farms and dairies, where the many aspects of producing milk and milk products are all separated. Unlike small-scale farms, no one person is directly involved in all operations in a corporate dairy. No one is suggesting overthrowing the FDA—a safe food supply is not to be underestimated—however, a curious mix of political libertarians and foodies is questioning some of the motives and logics underpinning the Pasteurian food regime.
In the meantime, I find it absolutely thrilling to see that American can-do attitude in full force that when someone or something – even our own government – stands in our way of our dreams, we become more creative, clever, and resourceful in order to adapt. I think that the beauty of American artisinal cheeses is that we are not like Europe, but completely our own. It is the struggles and challenges that the small-scale dairy farmers have faced that have given the most flavor to their cheese. While the Coalition will continue to fight for the freedom to create young, unpasteurized cheeses, I am curious to see, to be able to witness, the creations that occur in the aging caves in the U.S.
Dizikes, Peter. Against the common gouda: The government regulates how food is produced. MIT anthropologist Heather Paxson studies the rebellious cheese-makers who reluctantly adhere to those rules. MIT News, October, 2009
FDA. The Dangers of Raw Milk: Unpasteurized Milk Can Pose a Serious Health Risk. 08/22/2012
Gudrais, Elizabeth. American Cheese Cultures. Harvard Magazine, January-February 2010
Hall, Ross Hume. Will Fears of Germs Stymie a Small Farm Revival in the U.S.?. The Ecologist. June, 2001
Oldways and the Cheese of Choice Coalition
Paxson, Heather. Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States. Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Feb., 2008), pp. 15-47