By Michele Kayal
In the pastures of northeastern Vermont, Jasper Hill Farm’s Ayrshire cows feast on grass and clover, producing a fresh, sweet milk that fuels some of the country’s most beloved cheeses.
“Our approach is to distill the landscape,” says Mateo Kehler, cheesemaker and co-founder of the creamery. “The cow goes out on fresh grass after every milking, harvests that grass and brings it to the farm. We take that and turn it into a cheese that really is reflective of the geography and climate that we live in. It is a taste of place.”
Except that food safety officials say it also is a potential source of dangerous pathogens like E. coli and salmonella.
Kehler and other artisanal cheesemakers swear by “raw” milk — straight-from-the-udder and unpasteurized — saying it gives their products personality and depth of character by retaining the good bacteria that otherwise are killed during pasteurization. Selling raw milk is illegal in most states, but federal law allows cheese made from raw milk as long as it is aged for 60 days, a period intended to kill harmful bacteria.
But the Food and Drug Administration is re-examining its regulations, a move that has caused concern among cheese makers. They worry that the agency will lengthen the mandatory aging period or, possibly, ban raw milk cheeses altogether. FDA officials are meeting next week in Washington with members of the American Cheese Society to discuss the issues.
“We’d like to know more about any pending regulatory changes that may occur and how we can help prepare our cheesemakers,” says Christine Hyatt, president of the 1,200-member group. “I would hope that we can work together to create some standards and safety protocols for cheesemakers that would not require additional regulatory changes.”
An outright ban would remove some of the world’s most famous cheeses from American shelves: Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gruyere and Roquefort all are made with raw milk. But even extending the aging period, cheesemakers and experts say, could leave a notable hole on your cheeseboard.
“Over the years we’ve developed a number of American treasures that have really become part of the larger food movement,” says Rob Kaufelt, proprietor of New York’s Murray’s Cheese shops.
Aging cheeses allows the acids and salts in it to kill harmful bacteria. Advocates of longer aging say more time could kill more bacteria. But opponents cite studies that suggest older cheese is not necessarily safer. At least one study found that E. coli can survive in cheese for more than a year.
At Meadow Creek Dairy in southwest Virginia, cheesemaker Helen Feete and her daughter Kat produce Grayson, a supple, pungent cheese reminiscent of Italian taleggio that has won prizes from the American Cheese Society five years running. Coaxing the cheese and its pliant rind to survive the 60-day mark was the greatest challenge in creating it, says Kat Feete, and having to push it even further would send them back to the drawing board.
“We’re already very limited by the 60-day rule in what we can do,” says Feete, noting that the new product probably would be stronger and very different from the prize-winning Grayson. “I would have to start the whole process of figuring out our cellars and our cheesemaking procedure almost from scratch.”
Jasper Hill’s Kehler says he already has sacrificed one cheese to the 60-day rule. Constant Bliss, a rich, buttery concoction with a bloomy rind, went to pasteurized milk last year, Kehler says, because aging the raw milk to 60 days left very little shelf life for consumers. The farm’s prize-winning Bayley Hazen Blue, a gentle blue-veined cheese laced with hints of licorice that is in demand at high-end cheese shops, would be in the same position if the aging period is extended, Kehler says.
And the farm’s Winnimere, a spruce-wrapped spoonable cheese that has acquired a cult following, would simply disappear. “It would be over,” Kehler says.
These soft cheeses are the most vulnerable since their character is tied to a short aging period. Another spoonable cheese that likely would perish is Rush Creek Reserve, a savory, custard-like cheese from Wisconsin’s award-winning Uplands Cheese.
“It was difficult to figure out how to get it to 60 days because it’s designed to be younger than that,” says cheesemaker Andy Hatch, noting that Rush Creek Reserve is in its first year of production. “We would either have to stop making it or would have to pasteurize, which would totally change the character of the cheese. I’m not sure we would do it.”
An outright ban on raw milk cheeses also would cost Uplands its Pleasant Ridge Reserve, an Alpine-style cheese like Gruyere with notes of broth and butterscotch that has won the American Cheese Society’s Best of Show three times, more than any other cheese. In 2010, it beat 1,400 competitors.
Rogue River Blue, a woodsy, aromatic blue cheese from Oregon’s Rogue Creamery that is wrapped in brandy-soaked vine leaves, also would disappear. It has been hailed by Fairway Markets’ master cheesemonger Steve Jenkins as “the most complex amalgam of flavors in the entire realm of gastronomy.” The cheese is also becoming “the ambassador for the American cheese movement,” says creamery president David Gremmels. Rogue River Blue, he says, was recently added to the roster of the famous Parisian cheese shop Laurent Dubois.
“That says a lot,” Gremmels says, “an American artisan cheese in Paris.”
Critics of extending the aging period say banning raw milk cheeses would throw the baby out with the bath water. Instead, many cheesemakers and their advocates say they would like to fortify the safety and testing procedures that many of them already practice.
In France, Kaufelt says, thousands of tiny producers — “kitchens, back room operations” — function under the same rules of sanitation as the large producers. “If those small cheese makers can do it without customers worrying about what they’re buying or eating, then certainly we should be able to do the same thing here,” he says.