Budding Calif. Cheese Industry Gets Grilled By FDA Northern California is becoming a new cheese industry hub — particularly for specialty cheeses. But recalls of cheese made with unpasteurized milk have put an unwelcome spotlight on the industry. Now officials are taking a closer look at the regulations for these so-called raw milk cheeses.
NPR logo

Budding Calif. Cheese Industry Gets Grilled By FDA

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/133650263/133786038" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Budding Calif. Cheese Industry Gets Grilled By FDA

Budding Calif. Cheese Industry Gets Grilled By FDA

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/133650263/133786038" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

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.

JILL GIACOMINI BASCH: 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)

GIACOMINI 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.

KUBA HEMMERLING: 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.

GIACOMINI BASCH: David Acheson is a former FDA associate commissioner.

DAVID ACHESON: 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.

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...

ACHESON: Then obviously the next step is making pasteurization an absolute requirement.

STANDEN: Christine Hyatt is president of the American Cheese Society.

CHRISTINE HYATT: 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.

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.

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: For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.