On a gray day in May at Chapel Hill Creamery, cows huddled under trees and the grass was green and damp. Inside the cheese-making building stand vats where the milk is pasteurized (heated to 145 degrees for 30 minutes), before it is made into cheese.
This step in the complex process of cheese making has been scrutinized and regulated for decades. The debate over the safety of raw milk and raw cheese goes back to the 1920s, when pasteurization was hailed as a breakthrough in modern infectious disease prevention. But pasteurization has also created antagonism between the Food and Drug Administration and farmers who make and sell raw milk and cheese.
The FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contend that unpasteurized milk is unsafe to drink, can make people seriously ill and has no nutritional benefits over pasteurized milk. Some proponents of raw milk contend it can help cure many ailments, including allergies, even cancer. The FDA dismisses these claims as unfounded, saying the cases of bacterial infection counter raw milk's purported healing powers.
However, raw milk cheese is technically legal in the U.S.—so far. A law passed in 1949 states that cheese made from unpasteurized milk is safe to eat if it's been aged for at least 60 days. After 60 days, harmful bacteria like listeria, salmonella and E. coli supposedly die.
Some cheese connoisseurs sing the praises of cheese made from "raw" milk: They claim that raw milk cheese sports a nuance and variety of flavor that pasteurization kills. Sunny Gerhart, cuisine chef at Watts Grocery in Durham, explains the difference between a fresh, pasteurized cheese and an aged, raw milk cheese: "Fresher cheeses have a short shelf life and tend not to be as complex in flavor as a cheese that's been aged for three months or longer. [Aged raw milk cheese] will have earthier flavors, and [you'll generally find] more depth of flavor on the palate than from a fresh, pasteurized cheese."
Lately though, the FDA has re-examined its standards for raw cheese. Artisanal cheese vendors suddenly are under closer scrutiny.
Benjamin Chapman, assistant professor and Food Safety Extension Specialist at N.C. State University, explains why there's been a new focus on the aging guidelines for raw cheese. "There are people who still get sick even when cheese has been aged. Why the FDA is looking at it is because people still get sick after [cheese has been aged] 60 days. Any time there are illnesses within the guidelines, that's a good time to re-examine those guidelines."
People who consume raw cheese face the same quandaries as raw milk drinkers do: competing health and taste concerns. While the health concerns are less prevalent when raw cheese has been aged the requisite 60 days, they still exist. Chapman notes, "One of the biggest arguments for raw cheese would be for taste, and for people really into cheese. But the bottom line is that there are risks and that raw cheese can lead to things like miscarriages."
Gary Cartwright, director of the Dairy Enterprise System at N.C. State, agrees that there are some risks: "If cheese is highly contaminated with something like E. coli, there is evidence that some of the bacteria might survive after 60 days." But both Cartwright and Chapman agree that if raw cheese is properly handled and aged, it is safe.
Portia McKnight, owner of Chapel Hill Creamery, says that the FDA regulation is somewhat arbitrary and that it's an inappopriate way to regulate raw cheese. "The FDA is doing what they think is appropriate to take a non-black-and-white issue and make it black and white. We know what's in our milk. It's difficult to take such a complex product as cheese and make a blanket rule about it. As a cheesemaker, I know what the benchmarks are that make a product safe and good."
So there are risks involved in eating raw cheese, especially before it's been properly aged. Does this justify laws against raw milk and cheese?
"Hard question," Chapman says. "[For example] raw oysters carry a decent food safety risk, and we allow people to make their own choices about those. With cheese, the risks aren't as well known socially. We have rules for public health to reduce those little-known risks. I'm all for choice, but I also want to make sure we don't have people getting sick."
Bill Smith, chef at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, noted that Mexico and France have no regulations on aging cheese made with raw milk. Asked about the differences in flavor between unaged raw milk cheese and pasteurized cheese, he references the diversity of offerings. "There's more variety, more startling flavors, more runny things, interesting smells [that you find] in places that don't have to pasteurize cheese. In France you can get all kinds of wild things that you can't get here."
In neighboring South Carolina, raw milk is legal but regulated. But raw cheese, according to Derek Underwood of the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, still must be aged 60 days.
As raw milk laws in North Carolina raise issues of freedom of choice for the consumer and the farmer, federal regulation of raw cheese raises issues of freedom of expression for the artisan, the cheesemaker and the chef.