MADISON, Wis. -- The hottest regulatory issues facing America's specialty cheesemakers could be boiled down to a simple phrase: the raw vs. the cooked.
At the American Cheese Society's national meeting here recently, mandatory pasteurization -- heat treatment of raw milk to eliminate pathogens -- dominated the discussion of a panel on regulatory and environmental issues facing cheesemakers.
Current proposals before the Codex Alimentarius Commission (an international body formed by the United Nations to govern food safety and fair trade for comestibles in world trade) and the National Cheese Institute, an arm of the International Dairy Foods Association, Washington D.C., will either open vast opportunities -- or close doors -- for cheesemakers, depending on their volume of production.
Most controversial is the Codex proposal, to be adopted by the World Trade Organization, that requires member countries to make only pasteurized-milk cheeses for world trade. Countries could then close their borders to importation of cheeses made from raw milk. And at home, the National Cheese Institute recommends mandatory pasteurization (or its equivalent) of all milks for cheese.
Although environmental concerns such as whey wastewater management are most critical for high-volume cheese producers, the membership of the American Cheese Society, San Francisco, tends toward small specialty and farmstead cheesemakers. As such, the audience was most concerned with the effect of regulations calling for mandatory pasteurization and permitting use of any milk-derived ingredients in cheesemaking.
With relatively small herds and limited production, the ACS specialty cheesemakers command premium prices for their unusual cheeses. Many of these cheeses are made with raw milk, which is permissible for hard, low- moisture cheeses aged over 60 days, such as Cheddar and Parmesan. ACS cheesemakers have embraced the strict methods of dairy herd care and timely manufacture that permit safe use of raw milk in aged cheeses.
"Lovers of cheese recognize the mellow flavors possible only with raw milk," said Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman's Deli, Ann Arbor, Mich., and a past board member of the ACS. For specialty food retailers such as Weinzweig, who estimates that between 50% and 70% of the specialty cheeses he sells are imported and made with raw milk, any restrictions on raw milk cheeses could have a huge effect.
Dominique Delugeau, a member of the ACS board and a cheese distributor, pointed out that some raw milk cheeses, such as Pecorino Romano, are already high-volume imports.
"About 60 million pounds of Pecorino Romano are exported each year from Italy, and used in food service as an ingredient in snack foods and pastas, and sold at retail," she said. "How could this sheeps' milk cheese ever be produced here? Even with enzyme modification and added dairy flavors, this cheese cannot be duplicated. Not having any imported product would constitute a hardship for many makers of Italian food products that currently use Pecorino Romano as an ingredient."
Ironically, though Codex cheese standards and the National Cheese Institute may mandate pasteurization of milks, they may also permit usage of added caseinates, wheys, dairy flavors, and "any milk-derived ingredient" in a natural cheese. This would enable cheesemakers to use laboratory-derived dairy flavors to substitute for the missing "raw-milk" notes in pasteurized-milk cheeses.
The National Cheese Institute is a trade association, with 95 dues-paying member companies that market approximately 80% of the natural milk cheeses made in the United States. Members include large dairy processors, as well as businesses that supply dairy ingredients and equipment. Such businesses have the resources to benefit from the expanded definitions of natural cheese ingredients.
In contrast, dozens of farmstead cheesemakers in the United States could be forced to change their cottage-industry production methods, even though their raw-milk aged cheeses have met with critical success. At its meeting, six members of the ACS developed a task force on mandatory pasteurization and its effects.
In its political platform drawn up at the annual meeting, the ACS supports the continued democratic option to use both pasteurized and unpasteurized raw milk to produce America's cheeses. Individual countries should have the right to monitor the hygiene practices of their respective dairy industries, and to enjoy their own great cheeses historically made with raw milks, the platform asserts. The ACS supports the rights of U.S. cheesemakers to build on old traditions and create new cheese styles, using all types of milks. It opposes mandatory pasteurization because it inhibits the economic potential of many small specialty and farmstead cheesemakers, particularly those who are also dairy farmers with their own dairy herds.
Supporters of mandatory pasteurization point to other consumer-safety issues.
"Concerns about consumer safety and cheese peaked this summer in Wisconsin," according to Tom Ballmer of the National Milk Producer's Federation, Arlington, Va., "after a dairy had to recall fresh cheese curds contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7 when raw milk was inadvertently mixed in during the cheesemaking process."
Yet pasteurization is not the sole method available to reduce pathogens in milk. Potential equivalent processes include high pressure, irradiation, ultrasonic treatment and microfiltration. At the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research here, scientists preserve some of the flavor profile of raw milk through ultrafiltration, a means of concentrating raw milk. The ultrafiltration process makes the raw milk more stable, as well as reducing bacterial counts and volume, through reducing whey.