The laws governing American raw milk cheese production, which stipulate that any cheese intended for eating before it is 60 days old must be pasteurized, were implemented in 1949 in the belief that only aged, raw milk cheeses were suitable for consumption. Since then, the FDA has repeatedly proposed banning all raw milk products, including aged cheeses, amid lingering fears that they’re inherently more dangerous than their pasteurized counterparts. Yet aged, raw milk cheese has historically enjoyed an excellent safety record: Pathogens are considered more likely to occur in soft, moist cheeses (even if they’re pasteurized) than in the dry, hard or crumbly varieties typical of aged, raw milk cheese.

So why all the fuss? Milk-related illnesses have plagued mankind for much of history and are still problematic in cases where raw milk from many sources is being pooled. But blaming raw milk misses the larger issue: Most of the problems are due to improper handling or pasteurization, or to contamination after pasteurization. In fact, raw milk, full of natural good bacteria (which pasteurization kills), is actually far more capable of combating pathogens than pasteurized milk. Besides, says cheesemaker Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, “aged raw milk cheeses have salt, acidity, and age on their side.”

Almost all raw milk cheesemakers produce small, single-origin batches and take great pains to ensure their milk is clean — their livelihood depends on it. Like Kehler, many also work with the Raw Milk Cheesemakers’ Association, a self-regulatory committee whose goal is to raise industry standards and develop Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans like those used in Europe. The cheesemaker-specific checklist ensures every point of possible contamination is accounted for and sealed.

The FDA is currently conducting a risk analysis of the pathogen Listeria monocytogenes in foods like dairy products, deli meats and fresh produce, and has encouraged raw milk cheesemakers to contribute data to the study. Their conclusions could vindicate or signal the end of raw milk cheese production. In the meantime, here’s a cheeseboard to sample … while you still can.

Uplands Dairy’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve

Dodgeville, Wisconsin

Made exclusively during the brief Wisconsin summer, when Mike Gingrich’s recently calved cows eat only lush prairie grass, this cheese is made according to old European traditions that have mostly died out — even in Europe. You can taste wild flowers and herbs from the cows’ diet in the cheese’s nutty, sweet flavors.

$22.50 per 1.25 lbs,

Meadow Creek’s Grayson

Galax, Virginia

Also a seasonal cheese, Grayson is produced between april and December from the Feete family’s herd of grass-fed Jersey cows. Washed in brine that encourages the growth of the pinky-orange bacteria known as B linens, Grayson is styled after a taleggio or liverot but is beefier and more buttery in flavor.

$14.35 per 1.25 lbs,

Redwood Hill’s Goat Feta

Sebastopol, California

One of the first goat dairies in California to produce raw milk and cheese, 40-year-old Redwood Hill makes both a raw and a pasteurized feta. But the raw cheese, formed into blocks by hand and brined for about 18 hours before aging, has a bouncy, tangy flavor that’s far less salty than commercial feta.

$44.50 per 3 lbs,

Redwood Hill’s Gravenstein Gold

Gravenstein Gold may be harder to find than Redwood Hill’s other cheeses but it’s well worth pursuing. Thanks to weekly rubdowns with local Gravenstein apple cider, this crumbly-centered chevre has the mushroomy flavor characteristic of washed-rind cheeses but with an overtone that tastes of (what else?) sweet apples.

$5 per 4 oz piece, 707-823-8250, ext 102 to order

Rogue Creamery’s Rogue River Blue

Central Point, Oregon 

Wrapped in grape leaves macerated in Oregon pear brandy, rogue river blue is made from autumn’s milk (from cows milked in August), which is high in solids and butterfat. Creamy and liquorous and sweet, the rrb varieties are released every September or October.

$30–35 per lb,

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Raw milk cheese: Risky food?
Raw milk cheese prepared properly is not a risk, according to the Raw Milk Cheesemakers' Association.