Fact fudging: what are risks associated with raw milk cheese?

The American Cheese Society has a, uh, cheese problem.

While regulators and retailers reassess the safety of raw milk cheese, ACS declared last week raw milk cheese ”when produced and sold under current FDA guidelines, can be consumed without unnecessary risk.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began a comprehensive review of the 60-day aging rule in 2009. Officials said the review was done and was awaiting approval before release.

That was over a year ago.

The debate focuses on a federal rule that requires cheese made from raw milk to be aged for 60 days before it is deemed safe to eat. Aging allows the chemicals in cheese, acids and salt, time to destroy harmful bacteria. ?Scientists have found, however, that 60 days of aging is an overly simplistic guideline, in part because there are so many types of cheese and different ones may require different safeguards.

In one 2010 outbreak, 38 people in five states became sick from raw milk gouda made by Bravo Farms of Traver, Calif., and sold through Costco. In another outbreak, eight people in four states were sickened by bacteria traced to soft cheeses made by Sally Jackson, a pioneering cheesemaker in Oroville, Wash.

In Ms. Jackson’s case, investigators documented unsanitary conditions that could have played a role in making the cheese unsafe. And in the Bravo case, investigators charged the company with packaging cheese for sale before the required 60-day aging was complete.

The American Cheese Society (ACS) endorses current FDA raw milk cheese guidelines for manufacturers, including:

• producing cheese in licensed facilities that are routinely inspected on the local, regional, and federal level;
• producing cheese under the oversight of licensed dairy handlers; and,
• aging cheese for a minimum of 60 days before it is sold.

The majority (approximately two-thirds) of ACS members voluntarily exceed these standards by establishing and adhering to a Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan, and following these additional ACS-recommended best practices:

• taking part in ongoing food safety education;
• regularly conducting product and environment testing;
• maintaining accurate and up-to-date records;
• seeking third party certification;
• building relationships with local, regional, and federal inspectors; and,
• adhering to all state and federal regulations and industry standards.

Shouldn’t any producer of potential risky food comply with food safety basics?