Ending the War on Artisan Cheese: The Inside Story of Government Overreach and the Struggle to Save Traditional Raw Milk Cheesemakers
By Catherine Donnelly
Chelsea Green Publishing
When you have kids, they ask interesting and sometimes tough questions. “Why are there so many stars?” “Where does the wind come from?” “Why is our government at war with so many things?” Catherine Donnelly explores one of these perplexing wars—the war to wipe out raw milk cheeses.
To some degree, this war isn’t a surprise, given the government’s animus toward raw milk. However, the war on raw milk cheeses points to something deeper. Unlike raw milk, which at best is a niche market, raw milk cheeses are mainstream. In fact, over the past thirty years, the U.S. has experienced an explosion of artisanal cheesemakers across the entire country, numbering into the thousands. Economically and shelf-wise at the grocery store, raw milk cheeses have become big business—populated for the most part by small players.
Donnelly’s book focuses on the “existential threat” that regulatory overreach poses to these small-scale artisan cheesemakers. As she sees it, “a ban on raw milk cheesemaking would economically devastate nonindustrial cheesemaking in the U.S.” The unholy alliance between government and agribusiness couldn’t be clearer—the real reason the government wants to get rid of raw milk cheese is because it threatens big ag.
The overreach takes many forms, but Donnelly focuses on a number of key issues. Especially troubling is the fact that the government’s regulatory warfare—and particularly the actions of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—lack scientific support. Instead, the war against artisan raw milk cheeses is a thinly veiled attack on the few semi-independent parts of the U.S. dairy industry that stand as the last bastion against almost total consolidation, homogenization and pasteurization.
In a simple sentence, Donnelly sets the stage for why the war makes no sense: “Only six outbreaks of illnesses [from cheese] during this entire time frame (1948-1988) occurred. . . despite the fact that 100 billion pounds of cheese was produced and consumed during those years.” Cheese is an exceptionally safe food. When you consider the fact that the majority of supermarket chicken is contaminated with multiple strains of pathogenic bacteria, or that leafy greens and many other fruits and vegetables are now routinely part of massive, hard-to-trace outbreaks of foodborne illness, it makes you wonder why there is so much concern over such a statistically safe food. The situation in other countries highlights the absurdity—in the U.S., the “sixty-day aging rule” holds sway, even for cheeses that in other countries cannot be legally sold after fifty-five (or less) days because of the increased risk these particular cheeses present!
The book is full of a wide range of historically and otherwise interesting information, such as how the U.S. government redefined pasteurization to include irradiated foods in 2002. Donnelly also describes how the FDA often supports its positions with poorly designed studies, including some that use pasteurized milk to ascertain the safety of raw milk cheese production methods! The agency has no compunction about using raw milk cheeses that were imported illegally or produced in unsanitary conditions to assail all raw milk cheese and all raw milk cheese producers. Even worse, science now shows that FDA food safety rules make many types of cheese less safe, increasing the risk for post-production contamination. In some instances, the agency seeks to impose rules that are the opposite of what most of the rest of the world does, such as trying to ban wooden aging boards when most other countries require them. As Donnelly comments, “It is terrifying to think that, with the stroke of a pen, the FDA could wipe out centuries of traditional practice. It is even more frightening to think that this could be accomplished through the incorrect interpretation of scientific studies.”
The book’s middle section sometimes becomes quite technical, wading deep into the murky waters of the “whats, whys and whos” of the FDA’s tactics to make raw milk cheese almost impossible to produce or import in the U.S. It also explores the strange interplay between U.S. and foreign regulations, showing that many other countries have technical expertise in food production and safety that is decades ahead of the corporate-food-beholden FDA. In addition, Donnelly explores the impact of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Quoting the Canadian Free Press and a number of other sources, she states, “As [FSMA] is currently written, [it] will actually make our food less safe. S.510 will strengthen the forces that have led to the consolidation of our food supply in the hands of a few industrial food producers, while harming small producers who give consumers the choice to buy fresh, healthy, local foods.”
I learned a great deal from this book, even if at times I disagreed with Donnelly’s framing of particular issues. It was also a timely read, as Joel Salatin and I prepare to host the first-ever Rogue Food Conference (roguefoodconference. com) in January of 2020. At the conference (where we will share not just good conversation but an artisanal raw milk cheese or two), we will explore how all food system players—from farmers to artisan producers to eaters—can innovate around the ever-expanding net of regulations that seeks to capture independent food and farm businesses and remove them from the sea of food choices until only industrial agribusiness remains. Two thumbs up.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2019