Sunday, February 8, 2015

Slow food: slow milk makes slow cheese

Click here for the original article from

Why Raw Milk

Raw milk is milk that hasn't been submitted to heat treatment. Various treatments exist, that kill most micro micro-organisms present in milk, both "good" and "bad" bacteria.
Today, pasteurization of milk is the norm. The practice is a combined response to the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis through contaminated milk at the beginning of the last century, and the change in farming methods that took place in the second half of the century. The transition to industrial farming led to a rapid fall in the animals' quality of life and increase in handling of the milk, and therefore a higher risk of food borne illness.

Milk is unquestionably a susceptible product to contamination and like many food substance it can contain pathogens.

So why are we defending raw milk?

In defense of bacteria...

Not all bacteria are bad. While heat kills any potentially harmful pathogens, it also eliminates the bacteria naturally present in the milk that contribute to its flavor and the complexity and character of the cheeses made from it. Also, a growing body of evidence attests that the bacteria found in raw milk have many health benefits, including better digestion. Furthermore, lactic acid-producing bacteria normally present in raw milk actually act to limit or kill bad bugs - some of which survive heat treatments or find their way back after this process.

Pasteurized milk is effectively "dead milk". To build flavor in cheese made from it, cheesemakers must re-introduce bacteria through the form of starter cultures - pre-selected strains of bacteria made in a laboratory and available in powder form. These selected bacteria are the same the world-over, and together with pasteurized milk they make cheeses lacking character and diversity that are identical from Japan to Australia to Sweden.
The U.S. is the world's biggest cheese producer, but can you think of ONE American cheese? Cheddar maybe, except that the cheese named after it's British ancestor is a far cry from the taste (and health benefits) that made it popular in the first place.

A taste for raw milk

Have you ever tasted a raw milk cheese? If you have ever eaten traditional Italian Parmesan, Dutch Gouda or French Camembert you have, but many only have the opportunity to try their mass-produced industrial counterparts.

With raw-milk cheeses you taste the breed, the environment and of course the expertise of the cheesemaker. Milks from different breeds are as varied as the breeds themselves; the pasture that the animals grazed - mountains, hills, valleys or plains; and the season the cheese was made. All of these elements are evident in the end product, combining in countless ways to produce the unique cheeses we love. When milk is pasteurized, we lose this diversity and pave the way to abandoning food cultures and animal biodiversity.

What is the point of working to maintain the biodiversity of breeds and ensuring high quality feed if all the cheeses produced are identical? By defending raw milk, we are also defending animal welfare, the protection of landscapes and environments, and entire communities that still maintain artisanal skills such as those of shepherds, cheese makers and affineurs.

How big is the risk, really? 

In most countries that have a long tradition of cheesemaking, raw milk is not only legal but highly valued, always proudly mentioned on the label.

However in most Anglo-Saxon countries, where the industrial food system was more eagerly embraced, raw milk has been submitted to fierce, over-hygienic food safety regulations in recent decades. Many of these nations have made the sale of raw milk or raw-milk cheese subject to heavy regulation in an attempt to achieve an impossible and arguably detrimental goal of zero risk. In the USA, UK and Ireland, for example, raw milk cheese can be produced but may only be sold after aging for a minimum of 60 days.

At one time diseases such as tuberculosis were a real threat. But by now, these hazards have disappeared in most western countries (and many other countries too) and hygiene standards and animal husbandry have improved enormously. The risk is very limited, and concerns mainly susceptible groups such as pregnant women, young children, elderly and immune compromised, all groups that should also avoid raw meat and be specially attentive to fruit and vegetable cleanliness.

Food safety scares that are more frequently coming up in the news are in fact not coming from milk, but rather cucumbers, bean sprouts, turkeys, eggs. Why aren't we banning these foods? In Ireland, for example, a country that takes pride in it's high quality milk, it is estimated that 100 000 people drink raw milk every day, yet the health statistics do not indicate any alarm.

We can't help but ask ourselves why raw milk has fallen victim to an illogical perception of risk. Is it because of a lingering fear from a time when dangerous viruses had not yet been eradicated? Is it the importance in our diets? The highly symbolic nature of milk (purity, fertility, maternity, etc.) that makes it more susceptible to irrational behiavour? Or that it is specifically from small-scale production, so an attempt to stamp it out doesn't provoke powerful industry lobbying?

Regulations in the food industry are important but must be appropriate to the risk and help build healthy food cultures, not destroy them.

Power to the people

Risks and benefits known, why shouldn't the consumer have a right to purchase raw milk and raw milk cheese if they believe it is important for their wellbeing? There is no reason why these products should not be produced on the farm according to a fairly monitored, controlled and regulated process and sold with adequate labeling.

When it comes to raw milk products, as with many other foods, Slow Food believes we should not trade our freedom of choice and health for convenience and perceived safety.

written by Slow Food -

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