MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Watch out Wisconsin: Northern California has become a hub - some say the hub -for cheese making, especially specialty cheeses.
But there is an unwelcomed spotlight on the industry after high-profile recalls of cheese made with unpasteurized milk. Now, officials with the Food and Drug Administration say they may tighten the rules on cheese made with raw milk and perhaps ban it altogether.
KQED's Amy Standen reports.
(Soundbite of cows mooing)
AMY STANDEN: Here in Point Reyes, 40 miles north of San Francisco, the Giacomini family has been dairy cows since 1959. Jill Giacomini Basch grew up here.
Ms. JILL GIACOMINI BASCH (Farmstead Cheese Company, Point Reyes): The milk here is really reflective of, you know, the climate, the grasses, the moderate temperature year round.
STANDEN: Today, Giacomini Basch and her sisters run the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, best known for its $20 a pound Original Blue. Every step of the process takes place here on the farm.
(Soundbite of cows mooing)
Ms. BASCH: Hi, honey. It's OK.
STANDEN: At no point is the milk for the blue cheese pasteurized. That means it's not superheated to kill bacteria. Farmstead's head cheesemaker, Kuba Hemmerling says this is key to the cheese's flavor.
Mr. KUBA HEMMERLING (Head Cheesemaker, Farmstead Cheese Company): In a good way, I would call it farmy(ph). You know what I mean? You taste more of, you know, where the cows were and what was happening.
STANDEN: Selling raw or unpasteurized milk is illegal in most states but under federal law raw milk cheese is OK - as long as it's aged at least 60 days to kill harmful bacteria like E.coli, which can make it's way from an animal's manure into milk.
In recent months, two recalls involving E.coli in cheese have made headlines: first, in November, at Bravo Farms in California; then in December, at Sally Jackson Cheese in Washington state.
Because both cases involved raw milk cheese the Food and Drug Administration has stepped up inspections on cheese facilities across the country.
David Acheson is a former FDA associate commissioner.
Mr. DAVID ACHESON (Former FDA Commissioner): When problems begin to emerge with a certain kind of food in a certain type of market, there's greater focus from the state, local and federal regulators. They find the problems that have probably been lurking there all along.
STANDEN: Acheson says, for example, the FDA has long suspected that E.coli contamination can happen even when companies do follow the 60-day rule. He says scientific tests back this up.
Mr. ACHESON: E.coli was put into cheese, unaged, under lab conditions. And there was certainly evidence that to some extent it could survive the aging process.
STANDEN: FDA officials haven't said when the rules would come out or what they'd look like. But Acheson says a key question will be whether any aging period is long enough to kill harmful bacteria. And if not...
Mr. ACHESON: Then obviously the next step is making pasteurization an absolute requirement.
STANDEN: On average, about 40 people report getting sick from raw milk cheese a year nationwide. That's according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Christine Hyatt is president of the American Cheese Society.
Ms. CHRISTINE HYATT (President, American Cheese Society): You know, when I look at the track record of cheese and the safety, it's pretty remarkable when you think about the number of people eating cheese every single day.
STANDEN: And many of these cheeses - far more, she says, than most people would realize - are made with unpasteurized milk.
Ms. HYATT: Like parmesan, reggiano, and gruyere and Roquefort - they are all made with raw milk and have been for thousands of years.
STANDEN: Still, Hyatt says if the science supports a longer aging period, most of the cheesemakers her group represents would get behind that. Most raw milk cheese sold in the U.S. is aged for longer than 60 days anyway. But she thinks the agency should be careful not to discourage an industry that is only just beginning to take shape.
Ms. HYATT: It would be a real shame to have a very small number of incidents lead to the demise of this really fascinating, fledgling industry.
STANDEN: Especially, Hyatt says, because contamination can happen at any stage of the cheesemaking process regardless of whether you use raw milk or pasteurized milk. Still, she says, for cheesemakers across the country the recent E.coli outbreaks have been a wakeup call.
(Soundbite of machinery)
STANDEN: Back at Point Reyes Farmstead, sanitary precautions are a way of life. A recall, says Giacomini Basch, could jeopardize her family's business.
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For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.