The State of Raw Milk

Slow Food launches an international network of mutual aid to help raw milk cheese producers and confront their common challenges together.

“The time is ripe to form a Raw Milk International, to create a network able to mobilize and share battles, problems and solutions, to put the pressure on globally. We should remember, however, that alongside raw milk the other major theme of Cheese 2017: selected starter cultures. Natural cheeses, free from selected cultures, are the next step beyond being simply raw milk cheeses. As such, the Raw Milk International must thereafter become a Natural Cheese International.” This is how Piero Sardo, President of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, summed up an intense afternoon of debate and discussion that inaugurated the 11th edition of the world’s most vital event dedicated to the world of dairy.

Cheese 2017 has taken a bold step, but it one we’ve always planned on taking: making the event a purely raw milk affair. But we couldn’t do that without giving pride of place among our public conferences to an in-depth discussion of the raw milk landscape, analyzing the effect of all the hard work we’ve done so far, the current state of play for raw milk cheese, both in its production and consumption, and the steps we still need to take in order to guarantee a prosperous future for the world’s finest cheeses.

On Friday 15th September, at the Teatro Politeama in Bra, Italy, an international panel took to the stage to put The State of Raw Milk under the spotlight. There were 17 speeches from five continents: from cheese makers, affineurs, sellers and experts that took part in The State of Raw Milk, the most important meeting ever on raw milk cheese.

Carlo Petrini opened proceedings by admitting his doubts when he first heard the proposal to dedicate Cheese 2017 entirely to raw milk cheeses, excluding all pasteurized products. “But having seen the Market around Bra, I’m once again convinced that it was the right. We are pushing the boundaries. If we don’t do it, who will? Raw milk cheeses are gaining greater recognition from producers and consumers around the world, and it’s only right that we give them the space they deserve: to tell the world what they are doing every day to defend biodiversity, traditional knowledge and of course, delicious cheese.”

Kris Lloyd, of the Woodside Cheese Wrights group in Australia, lamented the situation in her own country, where pasteurization is required by law. “The raw milk cheese situation in Australia is slow, and not the desirable kind of ‘Slow’”, she said. “We weren’t allowed to produce any raw milk cheese whatsoever until 2013, and even after that, only cooked curd cheese was allowed, which is still heat treated. Only in 2014 did the law change so that any cheese could be made with raw milk, but we’re still not allowed to sell it. I make it and share it with friends. As an individual, it’s a difficult and expensive hobby. But collectively we’re going forward, trying to convince the government to relax regulations.”

Carlos Yescas of the Oldways cheese coalition in the USA invited everyone to take part in a worldwide survey of cheese makers which they are putting together in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to map all the raw milk cheese producers in the world and indeed, find out why those producers who don’t use raw milk choose not to do so. He also spoke of the problems in his native Mexico, where Walmart particularly has lobbied for mandatory pasteurization. His organization, the Oldways cheese coalition, organizes a raw milk appreciation day which started in 2014 and this year counted over 700 events in 14 countries promoting raw milk cheese.

Brian Dick of the Slow Food Raw Milk Cheese Presidium in South Africa spoke instead, of how a total lack of regulation can also cause problems. “There are no restrictions on raw milk cheese or dairy production in South Africa, but it doesn’t mean it’s all rosy. Commercial dairy herds are affected by diseases which spread to our animals, so we need to isolate them. But without regulations, there’s no administration, including veterinary. So we, the producers, have to restrict ourselves according to local conditions.

Kent Ruiz is both a vet and cheese maker from Guanabacoa, Cuba. He talked of how the only traditional Cuban cheese making is based raw milk, using pigs’ stomachs, lemons or pineapple seeds as a natural rennet. In Cuba it’s forbidden to sell it, but people make it and consume it socially. “As a matter of fact, I have been a food safety inspector for 10 years, and a cheese maker only one, so you could say that for a long time I’ve been on the other side of the fence. But I’m getting my cheeses tasted by the same governments labs that I work for, and the results are positive. As with many things in Cuba, change is in the air.”

Andy Hatch from Wisconsin, USA, one of the Slow Cheese Award winners earlier in the day, spoke of the battles already won in the USA, and those still to come. “We’re still struggling to change a law from 1947 that bans any raw milk cheese that hasn’t been aged at least 60 days. But things are going to be difficult. The Food Safety Modernization Act brought into force by Obama in 2011 is now unfolding.”

Bronwen Percival of Neals’ Yard Dairy, and founder of London Gastronomy Seminars, spoke in depth of the two major problems facing British cheese making: Brexit, and the war against bacteria. “We don’t know new rules and regulation there’ll be afterwards, when we’re longer overseen by European bodies. But the irreversible loss of biodiversity caused by an obsession with bacteria count is even greater than the threat of Brexit. Even raw milk cheese makers want the lowest possible bacterial count. So in order to keep it ‘raw’ they clean the teets of the cows before milking and lower the number of raw milk microbes in the cheese. This is a loss of biodiversity and flavor. Our cheeses don’t hide behind funky rinds or soft textures, they are some of the finest expressions of raw milk’s flavor potential. We need to change the conversation towards safety rather than bacteria counts. They’re not the same thing. Yes, raw milk cheese permits microbes permit microbes, but they’re some of the safest food around. People are happy to eat raw vegetables: why not raw milk cheese?”

As a special gesture, Neal’s Yard Dairy has taken all pasteurized cheeses off their shelves this week, to mirror the efforts of Slow Food.

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