“It’s impossible to sell raw milk cheese in the US if it hasn’t been aged for more than sixty days, a law from 1947,” said Nora Weiser, opening one of the most important conferences at Cheese, discussing the state of raw milk cheese production in the US.
Nora Weiser is the executive director of the American Cheese Society, the lead organization in promoting American cheeses, which has the aim of educating federal and state regulators. Although artisan cheese in the US has been growing in popularity only in the last decade or so, the American Cheese Society has been focusing on the area for over thirty years.
“The regulations make sense for certain cheeses. We’re trying to show that you can make cheese safely using dozens of methods. In 2016 we conducted a survey on artisan and specialty cheesemakers, identifying over nine hundred producers.”
Many of the surveyed cheesemakers are small-scale; 75% produce less than 50.000 pounds a year. Among them only 38% make their cheeses with raw milk. “Would they use raw milk if regulations were more permitting? That’s what we are working on by educating regulators on high quality raw milk cheese.”
One of ACS’s biggest endeavors is focusing on education. To that end, they hold an annual conference in Denver, Colorado, with the participation of two thousand cheeses. “We focus on preserving traditional cheesemaking methods, things that are kind of norms in Europe, but not considered normal by the FDA,” said Weiser.
The Society is composed of dairy producers, retailers, distributors, academics, agencies, restaurants and government agencies. One of their members, Marieke Penterman from Marieke Gouda Farmstead Cheese, backed Nora Weiser’s point on the need to educate the regulators: “Things like raw milk and aging cheese in wood are slightly outside of what the large cheese industry is familiar with. So we also work to educate these regulators, since the problem is mostly the lack of it.”
In contrast to Europe, where most PDO cheeses use raw milk – therefore linking high quality to the use of raw milk – in the US there is a misconception that eating raw milk cheese is equivalent to drinking a potentially dangerous glass of raw milk.
Then what are the chances of having a PDO-like system in the US? A difficult question. PDO is not just an easily obtained title, but complex and diverging regulation systems for single types of cheeses that are connected to their unique territory and mode of production. Developing PDOs can’t simply be a state decision, they need to find solutions for the whole country.
Andy Hatch, a three time winner of the American cheese contest and member of the Society, criticized the bureaucratic hurdles with the government officials. “Dealing with the government is difficult since they treat all raw milk cheese equally. Pleasant Ridge Reserve has a very low risk profile, while other cheeses, which are more humid, can carry more risk.” Regulators do not address these details, eliminating all other aspects responsible for the safety of a raw milk cheese.
The difference between federal and state inspectors are also important to understand in the US. Does the response they get depend on the individual inspectors? According to many, state inspectors have been more reasonable compared to federal inspectors.
“The sixty-day rule is not adequate. We need to consider different risk profiles.” Although for Andy, the federal government has been transparently supportive. He went to Wisconsin, a large dairy producing state, to study dairy science. He then spent several years in Europe as an apprentice. “Compared to the technical base I got at the university, for subjects like affinage I had to come to Europe.”
Marieke started making raw milk cheeses in 2006. Born and raised in the Netherlands, she learned how to make cheddar in the US, then went to the Netherlands to learn how to make Gouda. “We believed that raw milk brought great flavor to our products. Our way of making Gouda was different than what the inspectors wanted to see. We used wooden shelves and milked by hand. As soon as the cows get milked, the milk goes straight from the cow to the creamery through an underground pipe.”
How do American raw milk cheeses measure up compared to European cheeses?
American cheesemakers originally started making European cheeses. In the last decades, they have seen tremendous growth in American domestic cheeses, as cheesemakers are understanding the incredible terroir of the country. But now cheesemakers in the US are adopting entrepreneurial attitudes, aiming for more than just pure replication of European cheeses. Exporting our cheeses to Europe is kind of giving back, since initially they based their cheeses on European products.
“Since we have the sixty day rule and that means that a certain section of our shop won’t have raw milk cheeses. Our softer and younger cheeses are typically pasteurized,” added John Antonelli from Antonelli Cheese Shop in Austin, Texas. ” I think there’s a lot of innovation combined with tradition in the US.”
There is a second generation taking over the artisanal raw milk cheese movement in the US, as Carlos Yescas from Oldways Cheese Coalition pointed out. “They are evaluating what can be done to create a more diffused movement. Our duty is to promote American dairy products across the world so they remain in the market without becoming extinct.”
Elisa Demichelis from Slow Food International: “The efforts of Slow Food USA and Slow Food International to support raw milk production started many years ago to gather a group of like-minded producers to defend their production. In recent months we have been reviving the Presidium thanks to other organizations already in this battle. The state of raw milk in the US has been changing a lot, but the battle is still social and political. We are working to create certain guidelines to determine what artisanal raw milk cheese production means in the US. Especially with the producers who are following the good, clean, and fair criteria. The Presidium aims to gather all the producers committed to a specific aim, without any state or territorial limitations.”