Oldways and the Cheese of Choice Coalition

In March 2000, Oldways, The American Cheese Society, the Cheese Importers Association of America and Whole Foods Market joined forces to assemble an international coalition to fight to preserve the rights of individuals to buy unpasteurized (raw milk) cheeses. The reason: In late 1999 there were rumblings that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was threatening to change the regulations about the sale of raw milk cheeses. The United States allows the sale of raw-milk cheeses aged for more than 60 days, under the assumption that 60 days of aging is enough for the acids and salts in cheese to help protect against harmful pathogens like listeria, salmonella, and E. coli.

Since 1949, the US government has forbidden the sale of hard cheeses made from unpasteurized milk unless the cheese has been aged for a minimum of 60 days at 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Ever since, the raw milk cheeses legally sold in this country, whether domestic or foreign—among them, Parmigiano-Reggiano, French Roquefort, Cheddar, Cheshire, Gruyere, Manchego—have met that criteria. And fortunately for the customer, it takes that long for these cheeses to ripen and be ready to eat anyway. We learned that one reason that raw milk cheese (cheese made from unpasteurized milk) is safe is because the dairy farmers who provide the raw milk to cheesemakers run smaller dairies, control the sanitation of their herds, and the milk is of high quality. Therefore they do not need to rely on pasteurization, which eliminates pathogens in milk.

Most raw-milk cheeses made in the US and many in Europe are predominantly made on a very small scale with the milk from the maker’s own animals or from neighboring farms, and without factory equipment. “Such small operations take great care of the health of their animals,” says Daphne Zepos, a cheese consultant and co-founder of the Cheese of Choice Coalition, “Small cheese-makers are very careful (they have to be to survive) and they operate under strict controls. They’re all under the auspices of their dairy inspectors, federal, state, or local. Anybody up and running has to be under some sort or inspection.” For the cheesemaker, the difference is that pastuerization also neutralizes enzymes and bacteria that produce flavor, character, and complexity. Pasteurization also destroys enzymes and bacteria that have health benefits. (Also, it must be said that there are great cheeses made from pastuerized milk.)

When Oldways and others in the cheese community learned about this potential change in the rules of aging of raw milk cheeses, we formed the Cheese of Choice Coalition (CCC) to make certain that all consumers would have the right to choose some incredible cheeses—such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, Comte, Manchego, and Emanthaler, to name a few. Oldways, the American Cheese Society, the Cheese Importers Association, Whole Foods Market, Zingerman’s, Formaggio Kitchen, among others worked together with cheese lovers from coast-to-coast—signing petitions at cheese and specialty stores, and getting a lot of media coverage of the issue. We are happy to say the Cheese of Choice Coalition was successful. Although the threat in 2000 passed, we are ever mindful of the importance of being able to enjoy our cheese of choice.

For more information about the Oldways Cheese Coalition, contact Carlos Yescas, Program Director at 617-896-4822 or carlos@oldwayspt.org.