Eating cheese is a political act

15 July 2023

Cheese has always had a dual purpose: firstly to bring together cheesemakers, herders, and affineurs from across the world in Bra in an event that represents the vanguard of quality in the dairy world, and secondly to celebrate this quality with our hundreds of thousands of visitors who, through Cheese, have adopted a new approach to the consumption of dairy.

But how did all of this happen over the 14 editions of the event held biennially since 1997? Cheese broke the mold from its very first year, demonstrating how eating cheese – a certain type of cheese – is ultimately a political act.

The battle to legalize raw milk

We started with the battle to liberate raw milk from the dark corner of secrecy, when the pasteurization industry sold itself as the champion of food safety. Pasteurization comes at the expense of the qualities of raw milk, and all the difference that this raw milk quality makes to a product which is made from just milk, rennet and salt.

In 1997 we played a sort of game with the visitors at the event,by offering them two anonymous cheese samples, one made from raw milk and the other from pasteurized milk. And 90% of the time they were able to appreciate the difference immediately. It was a revolution: cheesemakers started proudly showcasing raw milk cheeses, consumers began seeking them out, and restaurateurs started introducing cheese selections on their menus. Cheese carts, once a mythical idea from restaurants abroad, have now become a common sight in the finest establishments in Italy.

The Small-Scale Under Attack – September 16

For those who raise animals on a small scale, for those who go to the mountain pastures or graze their livestock, and those who live and work in marginal areas, the challenges to be faced are increasingly numerous and difficult. Their role should be recognized, their work valued and protected, but instead, small-scale producers are under attack on various fronts. There are numerous social, environmental, and economic problems, and in this meeting, we denounce the main ones. For example, the production of raw milk cheeses, which is still considered illegal in many countries around the world. Even in Italy, where it seemed like a won battle, it is being questioned in many cases.

Cheese against the use of powdered milk

We have fought many more since then. I recall the fight against the use of powdered milk in cheese production, a proposal by the EU which we opposed by gathering over 150,000 signature. The proposal was eventually rejected by Italy. We also examined invisible details under a magnifying glass, such as the widespread use of industrial starter cultures added to milk, even in the case of raw milk used for alpine cheese production. These “selected” starter cultures were introduced to aid the cheesemaking process in an environment that had become almost sterile due to excessively hygienic practices in dairies. While industrial additives ensure uniformity in every cheese regardless of location, they strip away the uniqueness that natural cultures, varying from one dairy to another, can impart on cheese.

A new horizon: defending the biodiversity of the pastures

The theme of this year’s edition of Cheese is the biodiversity of meadows. Together with a new and ambitious project from Slow Food Italia to save permanent meadows, we are raising the bar even higher. We aim to make people understand that choosing one type of cheese over another can truly make a difference—for the animals and their well-being, for the environment and the preservation of our lands, for the cheesemakers, and even for health.

Dialog with the organic and biodynamic worlds

All of this – raw milk, natural fermentation, meadow biodiversity – forms a heritage of achievements that Slow Food has made through Cheese over the last 25 years, and we want to fortify this legacy by sharing it with other organizations and businesses who can make a difference. This is the political significance of Cheese 2023: forging strong alliances that push our systems of food production and distribution in the direction of greater sustainability. This applies to organic cheeses made with raw milk and without additives, as well as nitrite- and nitrate-free cured meats.

These are the premises behind the dialogue we are initiating with the organic and biodynamic world, to strengthen the path we have embarked on together in recent years. It’s a path that has enormous potential, one that can help new small-scale producers emerge.

The next challenge for Slow Food: ending intensive farming

I am convinced that the next step Slow Food must take in its reasoning about the world of food production is raising awareness about the consequences and effects of industrial farming and the journey towards agoecological transition.

Worldwide, over 95% of the meat on the market is produced by the industrial farming system, while in Europe, the figure is around 80%. The nature of the livestock industry has lots of well-known negative externalities: for our health, for animal welfare, for social justice and for the environment as a whole.

Piero Sardo, President of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity

Cheese 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the City of Bra from September 15-18. See you there! #Cheese2023

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