Should We be Afraid of Raw Milk Cheeses?
It must be remembered that in life there is no such thing as zero risk! Regarding cheeses made from raw milk, it is the same. In Canada as in the USA, it is not recommended for pregnant women, young children or the elderly to consume raw milk cheese. They say that their immune system may be deficient. Should we be afraid to eat raw milk cheeses?
Here is what some well-known microbiologists and immunologists have to say:
In the past, concerns had some basis, as many diseases such as tuberculosis were transmitted by raw milk. Today, health checks are extremely strict. From an epidemiological perspective, there are no more problems today with raw milk cheese than with other cheeses and, above all, there are fewer problems with cheese overall than with other food products, such as ready-to-eat seafood in salads or smoked salmon sold in plastic.
– Dominique-Angèle Vuitton, Professor of Clinical Immunology at the University of Franche-Comté.
The claim about seafood being associated with greater risk than dairy is consistent with American data from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest:
In a very interesting article, by food columnist Jane Lear, cites University of Vermont microbiologist and international Listeria authority, Catherine Donnelly in her commentary on the FDA’s 60-day-aging regulation:
The 60-day aging rule was really intended to be applied to cheeses that as they age become hostile to microbial pathogens—like cheddar and hard-ripened ones. Now, with all the artisan cheese being produced in the United States, cheese makers must apply the 60-day rule to such cheeses as soft-ripened cheeses that were never designed to use aging to achieve safety,” she said. “So in a Camembert, for example, holding that cheese for 60 days actually increases its health risk substantially. If you think about France, where they sell Camembert or Brie at 30 days, there’s a much lower risk of Listeria contamination and growth in their soft-ripened cheese. In fact, in France you can’t even sell an AOC Camembert beyond 59 days because the risk is considered to be so great. So even though the FDA applies the 60-day rule to raw-milk soft-ripened cheeses, our research indicates that it’s not good practice to enforce that. The agency is, however, in the process of doing a soft-cheese reassessment.
Another point of view holds cheese as a living product…
A cheese is a living product and inside of the cheese, there are microbial communities that are composed of different species. In a single raw milk sample, there were 40 different species, all of which have a specific function. In brief, this forms a very organized community.
– Marie-Christine Montel, director of the Research Unit of INRA cheese. She further adds:
In a single cheese was identified more than 100 different odor molecules that have a specific flavor or taste. It is what gives the specificity of the cheese. Whether you have a cheese or sausage, you almost have the same molecules, but not in the same proportions. This is what causes the taste differences.
Professor Dominique-Angele Vuitton noticed that eating cheese, and especially raw milk cheeses, has the potential to replenish the intestinal flora. She mentions a second benefit to the consumption of raw milk: protection against allergies and certain associated disorders: such as asthma, hay fever or eczema.
Raw milk consumption by the mother during pregnancy or the baby especially in the first year of life is entirely associated with protection. It is somewhat paradoxical. Today, the focus is often on risks associated with raw milk consumption, but not on benefits, because they are less visible and they will develop throughout life.
These excerpts were taken from the documentary, Fromages au lait cru: les gentilles bactéries sont nos amies pour la vie.
As noted by Quigley, O’Sullivan, Stanton, Beresford, Ross, Fitzgerald & Cotter1, the microbial community within raw milk is complex:
A number of these microorganisms also have the potential to contribute to health through the production of antimicrobials or possessing other probiotic-associated traits. Through modern genomics-based analysis, it has been established that many of these microorganisms have become adapted to milk niches from various sources, including plant and gut environments, through genomic evolution and gene gain and/or loss. Despite the beneficial impact of many milk-associated microorganisms from a flavour, technological or health-related perspective, it is clear that there can be significant risks associated with the consumption of raw milk and raw milk-derived products or, more specifically, of the pathogens that can be found therein. While many of these microorganisms gain entry to the milk from equipment and/or personnel, zoonotic pathogens can also be introduced into milk from unhealthy animals (p. 37).
Ultimately, the consumption of raw milk cheese is a balancing act of the risks of contamination, and the benefits of varied flavor and supplementing healthy gut flora. Of note, the science of healthy and varied gut flora is still quite young. In the coming years it will be interesting to see whether raw milk cheese will have a role to play in healthy gut flora supplementation. For many French people (such as myself), the risks associated with raw milk consumption is very much seen as minimal, and we happily enjoy cheese plates filled with raw milk cheese. Many of us tend to feel that the precautions are simply the result of a lobby for industrialized food. For others, the precautions given by health agencies warrant attention. It is up to each of us to decide for ourselves which information we find more complete and credible. The best solution, (much like the solution to GMO controversy) is to have clear labeling so that we might each choose for ourselves what risk/delicious benefit ratio we prefer.
1. Quigley, L., O’Sullivan, O., Stanton, C., Beresford, T. P., Ross, R. P., Fitzgerald, G. F., & Cotter, P. D. (2013). The complex microbiota of raw milk. FEMS microbiology reviews, 37(5), 664-698. Chicago.
Below is a selection of articles on Raw Milk & Raw Milk cheese consumption. Given my already stated bias towards deliciousness, for those who want more information on the risks of raw milk cheese, I would direct you to your local public health authority (Health Canada for Canadians, the FDA & USDA for Americans). For a delectable selection of raw milk cheeses, as you digest this information, click here.
After almost 50 years of living in North America, I see from this distance, the decline of the influence of French gastronomy in France. After the Second World War, the French wanted to imitate the Americans and encourage intensive agricultural production in defiance of the […]
In this article, food columnist Jane Lear describes how raw milk cheese regulations are different in Europe and the USA and in particular how in the USA, the FDA’s 60-day-aging regulation may actually increase the risk of listeria contamination, rather than protect food safety. Citing University […]
Raw Milk Cheese Appreciation Day allowed me to see former clients and discover new cheeses that I previously knew only by name. In Toronto, we had a few shops participating in this event. Due to lack of time, I was able to visit only three stores. […]
Traditional cheese lovers everywhere have cause to celebrate on April 18th, 2015, designated the world’s first Raw-Milk Cheese Appreciation Day. The Cheese of Choice Coalition and the prestigious Guilde Internationale des Fromagers are teaming up for this new worldwide holiday. Cheese enthusiasts from Melbourne to […]
Various claims that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) selectively includes data that damns raw milk can be found here. I claim no authority or added insight to these claims. I only know what is delicious! Here is a second source, making similar claims.
For a collection of studies done on raw milk, see this post by RealMilk.com.
In this French language documentary, various French and Swiss experts weigh in on raw milk cheese and the cultural significance of terroir, a French term that refers to the properties of food, which arise from the geographical conditions (such as climate, soil conditions, geology) of their […]