Raw-milk cheese debate, talk to me in 60

Sixty days. That's how long the FDA makes us wait for raw-milk cheese. Dating back to the 1940s, the 60-day stamp of approval came into play when it was first believed that a long drying process, along with enzymes and salts, would naturally preventing listeria, salmonella, and E. coli from growing and ruining your grilled cheese sandwich experience. However, recent studies have shown listeria and E. coli can survive in cheese beyond 60 days. Gasp.

It's the same debate as raw milk: many farmers, cheesemakers and consumers believe that pasteurizing the milk kills beneficial bacteria and alters the flavor. Federal lawmakers, however, want to keep the list of "death by cheese" as low as possible and require all cheeses made in the U.S. be from pasteurized milk, or aged 60 days if made with raw-milk.

I don't think the 60-day rule is such a bad thing. For cheeses like Cheddar, Manchego, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Gruyere the aging process is at least 60 days in rooms that are 50 degrees F. with 85 percent humidity anyhow, so the American versions aren't really missing out on anything. It's the soft cheeses like ricotta, Brie and chèvre that get the short end of the curd slicer in the 60-day deal.

So how can we have our raw milk cheese and eat it, too? Expert cheesemakers are voting for food safety vigilance in creameries across the United States, with rigorous HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) plans in place that require frequent inspections and on-site bacteria testing.

And I think that could work well in small operations that produce local, organic artisan cheeses. Which is how it should be: small, local creameries producing specialty cheeses that are so unique, you can pinpoint the grass and clover essence in the cheese, according to region or season.

But when the big companies want in on the artisan trend and decide that marketing is more worthwhile than local and organic, we start to have a problem. When supply and demand meets greed, the food safety system suffers.

I confessed earlier I couldn't bring myself to drink raw milk. However, I feel differently about raw milk cheese as long as it's mature. I'm a fan of the 1940s 60-day rule and don't mind waiting for a good raw milk Cheddar. But unless I'm on a hillside in Italy with lactating sheep grazing next to me, I'm not eating the raw milk ricotta made here in the U.S.

What do you think? Do you agree with the possibly outdated 60-day law or are you a supporter of the raw milk option for all cheeses? And what raw milk cheeses have you enjoyed (and lived to tell us about)?

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