Monday, June 29, 2015

The Beginning of the End of Raw Milk Cheese in Wisconsin?

Wheels of Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar, once made
exclusively from raw milk, are now pasteurized
because Cheesemaker Willi Lehner can't find a cheese
plant that will today allow raw milk through its doors.
I have been exceptionally lucky to have been in the right place at the right time most of my life. But no luckier than in 2003, when I took a job at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and got drafted into a small team that would go on to help artisan cheesemakers launch a dairy renaissance in America's Dairyland.

Since then, I've been privileged to watch dozens and dozens of artisan cheesemakers start-up and craft what have become national and international award-winning cheeses, and many of those cheeses have been made from raw milk.

That's why it's particularly painful for me to put the last part of that sentence in past tense: "have been made from raw milk." Because whether the American consumer is aware of it or not, many Wisconsin-made artisan cheeses that were only a year ago made from raw milk, are now pasteurized.

Last week, I got lucky again - this time I was in the right place at the right time to escort a leading French scientist to visit Wisconsin cheesemakers making raw milk cheeses. Christine de Sainte Marie is a senior research fellow at the French Institute National Institute for Agricultural Research. Her current research is on the political economics of reconnecting farming, food and the environment. Instead of slow food or fast food, she is studying people who are "farming in the middle" e.g. farmers using sustainable farming methods or cheesemakers making artisan cheese, but who are not certified organic. And she came to Wisconsin to study raw milk cheese.

So you can imagine my surprise when we arrived at Bleu Mont Dairy for our pre-arranged tour with one of Wisconsin's original raw milk cheesemakers, Willi Lehner - once described by the New York Times as an "off the grid rock star" - only to find out he hasn't made a raw milk cheese in months. Why? With no creamery of his own, he relies on renting space at other Wisconsin cheese factories to make his award-winning creations. And now, because of increased scrutiny and inspection protocols from federal inspectors, none of those factories will allow raw milk cheese out their doors.

"I feel there is an underlying fear in the whole cheese industry, that drains away the passion of our craft. And one of the results will be less and less real raw-milk cheese," Willi said.

Brenda Jensen, cheesemaker and owner at Hidden Springs Creamery near Westby, agrees. Brenda makes more than a half dozen different cheeses, all made from pasteurized milk. She makes one cheese from raw milk: Ocooch Mountain, an alpine-style beauty that many have compared to a sheep milk's salute to Gruyere.

Last week, this 50-time ACS award winner for farmstead sheep milk cheeses had a FDA inspector come to her door and ask for 20 wheels of ONLY her raw milk cheeses for testing. The inspector wanted the chain of ingredients, where they came from, all lots associated from them and a make sheet with all info. None of those requests are out of line, so Brenda spent several hours reviewing what was needed. But she kept thinking: "Why just the raw milk cheese?"

"Instead of the intimidation, I would rather have the inspectors help train me on what issues they are seeing with raw milk cheeses, and how better to safeguard against having these become a problem," Brenda said. She is now considering stopping raw milk cheese production.

Bruce Workman, at Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello, decided last year that making raw milk cheese was no longer worth the risk or the headache of increased FDA scrutiny. His Edelweiss Emmentaler, traditionally made with raw milk, is now pasteurized.

Meanwhile, some cheesemakers, such as Andy Hatch at Uplands Cheese, remain committed to making raw milk cheese. With no pasteurizer in the plant, Andy crafts the thrice-awarded ACS Best in Show Pleasant Ridge Reserve on a seasonal schedule, making cheese only when cows are grazing on fresh pasture.

On our visit to his farm last week, Andy told Christine he plans on making his raw-milk Rush Creek Reserve this year (last year, he suspended production, because of uncertainty in forthcoming FDA regulations). But he admits, his passion for making cheese is now coated by anxiety.

"What's different now is that the decision-making behind creating a new cheese is laced with an apprehension over unclear and changing regulations," Andy said. "Whereas before my first instinct was always towards developing something unique and expressive, now I instinctively worry first about making an acceptable product, and then second about making it delicious."

Despite uncertainty over FDA's potential changes with regulating raw milk cheeses, Andy hopes cheesemakers will stay the course. In an update to ACS members today, it was noted that the FDA is embracing an approach in regulating raw milk cheese that will "involve continuing outreach to stakeholders and expanding the conversation" - especially about the aging process for soft-ripened cheeses - before making any decisions on next steps in changing the 60-day rule for raw milk cheese in the United States.

"We, as cheesemakers can't allow those concerns to trump our efforts to make expressive, distinctive cheese. If we're given a chance to prove with testing that our cheeses are safe, than those goals need not be mutually exclusive," Andy said.

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