All things cheese in France

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Ah, America! Raw Milk - The Fight Heats Up

In his recent article, Who Took My Raw Milk Cheese?, David Gumpert discussed the politics and reasons behind the FDA raids on respected cheese makers in several states.  As a journalist, he is the author of The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights (Chelsea Green, 2009) and his blog documents the on-going battle over raw milk. 

From where I sit here in France, this is a pretty sorry story for the naissant US artisanal cheese business. France as the mother of all raw milk cheeses has it's problems too!  As recently as two years ago, big agro tried to get the EU to ban raw milk Camembert using the listeria argument. Historically however, in France these listeriosis alerts have been traced back to contamination at the source of production and in almost all cases, were from cheeses produced in industrial factories using pasturised milk.   

But here, all raw milk cheeses must comply with the health standards of European regulations concerning micro-organisms and hygiene.  According to statistics, the health risks associated with consumption of raw milk products are very limited if you compare the small number of listeriosis alerts that have occurred when compared with an annual production that exceeds more than 170,000 tonnes in France according to the researchers at the INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (France) otherwise known as the National Institute for Agricultural Research) in Clermont-Ferrand-Theix.

In an article by Pete Kennedy from the Farmer To Consumer Legal Defense Fund, FDA's Ace in the Hole, in the last thirty-eight years, there have been no reports of illness caused by the consumption of raw milk that was attributed to Listeria monocytogenes (L-mono).  One must ask why then is the FDA all of a sudden targeting small farm producers?  Reminds me of the UK in the 1970's, and the E-coli 0157 scare.  James Aldridge's wonderful artisanal cheese Tornegus was targeted by the then public health minister Tessa Jowell because of a suspected illness and his triving business was promplty destroyed.

As in the case of James Aldridge, the American farmers are being required to destroy their cheese, thus their livelihood.  The most disturbing bit here is that the FDA is only using a test to discover the presence listeria bacteria (which by the way is on your hands at this very moment) and not the one that drills down to find the specific form and quantity. I read that in the case of the Morningland Diary, 100 swabs at the dairy found no indication of presence the bacteria; however, the FDA is not publishing their results. It is like being condemned of a crime without actual proof.
If you are interested in the subject of biopolitics, I highly recommend you read the research paper by Heather Paxton at Massachusetts Institute of Technology - POST-PASTEURIAN CULTURES: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States, published in CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 23, 2008.  And further reading on the raw milk issue, you might try the Research report : Food Fears and Raw-milk Cheese by Harry G. West for the Food Studies Centre, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, 2008.

But by all means, please judge for yourself. I have been eating raw milk cheeses here in France every day for 20 years and am still alive and kicking!  Buy your cheese, raw milk or otherwise, from a quality fromagerie who source the best quality cheeses from the best producers; keep the properly and enjoy them safely.

An update : For those of you who what to keep posted on the latest developements on this story.  Two articles in the International Herald Tribune, November 19 & 20 2010...A matter of taste versus safety and As Cheesemaking Blooms, So Can Listeria both by William Neuman and there is an interesting video on the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese.

Update 30 November 2010 : Senate Passes Overhaul of Food Safety Regulations


  1. Not many labs are equipped or know to test for Listeria in the States. Who really knows how many miscarriages and deaths there might have been?

    According to this press release, it was Listeria mono and Staph at the dairy.

  2. The question comes down to "possible versus probable" risk. There is no doubt there is possible risk in all raw milk products, just as there is possible risk in all things. The Fourth Amendment, as I recall, says that everything is possible but not all things are probable. The right balance in deciding between possible and probable is tantamount. The fact that Listeria and Staph exist freely in nature, does not mean illness and death always follows. Authorities must and should be judicious and thorough in their investigation, just as producers, transporters and suppliers must be meticulous in their practice of hygiene and the public conscientious in their choices.