Illegal Cheese

Story by Elizabeth Dougherty

Photo by Cory Hatch

Artisan cheesemakers should be able to make the best tasting cheese they can.

The Montpelier Farmer’s Market has become a hotbed of criminal activity. From early spring through the first frost, the market hosts a weekly Saturday morning black market for a dangerous product: cheese.

To decrease the risk of harmful bacteria in cheese, the Food and Drug Administration requires that cheese makers must either pasteurize their milk or ripen their cheese for at least sixty days. Goat cheese maker Laini Fondiller occasionally skips the pasteurization step for the un-ripened soft cheeses she makes and creates small batches of raw milk cheese. Although she eats this cheese herself, the trouble begins when she sells these raw-milk rounds at the farmer’s market. She defies the FDA and sells her illicit cheese for a simple reason: it tastes better. “You can recognize the taste of raw milk cheese,” she said; compared to pasteurized-milk cheese, “they are like day and night.” She crafts her cheese using milk from her own animals. They carry with them the unique flavors of her farm—subtleties that hint of the hay her goats eat and the richness of their milk, subtleties that get lost in high temperature pasteurization.

Fondiller shouldn’t have to break the law to make the best tasting—and best selling—product she possibly can. An alternative to the one-size-fits-all solution of pasteurization exists. It is arguably more complicated, yet signs show such complications may be worth it. Americans have moved beyond bland orange blocks and have started to appreciate variety and complexity in their cheeses. It’s time for our laws to become as sophisticated as our tastes.

No simple formula guarantees safe cheese. Regulators and artisan cheese makers differ in their preferred approach to safety for good reason. Regulators want to eliminate risks as simply as possible while cheese makers know that crafting safe yet delicious cheese is a delicate bacterial balancing act. Making cheese requires growing bacteria, such as L actococcus lactis , an innocuous bacterium that cheese makers add to milk to make cheddar. A single misstep can introduce harmful bacteria, such as Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes, which can cause severe illness or even death. Making a safe product requires caution throughout the process, and respect for the fact that cheese is a living, growing thing.

Nevertheless, regulators use pasteurization as a catch-all to kill any impurities that may have slipped into the milk on the farm. This is a logical choice for milk from a large farm, where keeping animals well and conditions sanitary is nearly impossible. But on a small farm, good health and hygiene are manageable. In fact, a 2001 University of Minnesota study showed that on farms with fewer than 100 cows, Salmonella contamination is much less common than on large farms. While this study doesn’t prove that all small farms are safer, it does square with common sense. On large farms, farmers don’t intimately know the health status of every cow; whereas, farmstead cheese makers are involved with every aspect of cheese production, from udder to rind. Farmer and Gouda cheese maker John Wright of Taylor Farm knows if any of his forty cows have mastitis, an infection that causes bacterial contamination in cow’s milk—he personally cleans and inspects each cow before milking.

Not only is pasteurization overkill for small farms, it gives large farms a false sense of security. Food scientist Catherine Donnelly of the University of Vermont studied cases of food-borne illness from cheddar cheese. Of the more than 3000 illnesses caused by pasteurized milk cheddar cheese in the U.S and Canada from 1976 to 1989, Donnelly found that unsanitary equipment, ill workers, and sloppy pasteurization techniques introduced harmful bacteria during the cheese making. Though pasteurization may have killed all the bacteria in the milk, carelessness after the pasteurization step undermined any safety guarantee.

Ultimately, cheese making depends on the vigilance of the cheese maker. Pasteurization should have a place in cheese production, especially when using milk from large farms. But the small farm is unlike the factory and the uniqueness of farmstead cheese depends on raw milk. If we value the flavor of artisan cheeses, we need to consider a different approach to artisan cheese safety.

Check out the Cheese Making photo gallery