‘It refers to any manufacturer of dairy products’: blessed are the cheesemakers

As a turophile planning out my holiday cheese plate, I recently read with consternation a report by a Washington, D.C., environmental research organization that found cheese to have the third largest carbon footprint among all sources of protein. It stands behind beef (No. 2) and lamb (No. 1).

CheezwhizThe carbon released to transport animal feed, the methane belched by dairy animals, the energy expended to transform a gallon of milk into roughly a pound of cheese, and the fuel used to truck the finished product to stores combine to make the commercial cheese industry a major agricultural contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, the 2011 report by the Environmental Working Group found. For every 2.2 pounds of cheese produced, 29.7 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents are released into the atmosphere, the report said.

Buying Maine-made cheese – the state has more than 70 registered cheesemakers, so there are plenty of options – obviously cuts down on transportation-related emissions. And Maine Cheese Guild President Eric Rector, cheesemaker and owner of the Monroe Cheese Studio, says there are questions a cheese eater can ask of suppliers to make sure they are buying greener local cheese.

In her white lab coat and sensible crocs (there is no such thing), Sayer Dion Smyczek doesn’t look like a typical food revolutionary, but she is helping to upend the world of artisan cheesemaking.

For the past few months, Smyczek has worked as the nation’s first and only full-time microbiologist at the Cellars at Jasper Hill, a small creamery in northeastern Vermont. Although it sits above a cheese cellar, her state-of-the-art workspace would make any microbiologist feel at home.

Making cheese has typically been more art than science, relying on trial and error to create the perfect taste and texture. With their high-tech microbiology lab, Jasper Hill is changing all of that. They are turning cheesemaking into a science, giving artisans a chance to harness microbes in order to nurture new flavors and textures.

Blessed are the cheesemakers: feds arrest cheese that sickened 38

An outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 first became public in Nov. 2010, and would eventually sicken at least 38 people in several U.S. states. Investigators believe the source was Dutch Style Gouda Cheese produced by Bravo Farms of Traver, California from raw milk and sold primarily at Costco and Whole Foods Market stores.

The artisan cheese maker temporarily shut down.

Bravo was forced to quarantined stockpiles of cheese, and — no real surprise – of the 24 unpasteurized cheese samples investigators took, 15 tested positive for listeria and one tested positive for E. coli O157:H7.

According to the L.A. Times today, state and federal investigators found at least 50 live flies flitting around a processing area at Bravo. They also reported that a rabbit hopped out of a storage room, and a dairy worker scratched his chin then handled milled cheese with his bare hands.

On Thursday, U.S. marshals and Food and Drug Administration agents arrived at the cheesemaker and seized the Gouda, along with piles of Edam and blocks of white cheddar. All told, investigators have locked up more than 80,000 pounds of cheese. Prosecutors say it is all headed for the garbage disposal.

Worried that the cheese would somehow reach the public, and acting to shift the case from state to federal jurisdiction, the Justice Department used a civil legal mechanism to arrest a product — food — and essentially impound it.

Prosecutors filed a civil complaint in federal court in Sacramento last week that lists the cheese — not the farmers who made it — as defendants.

John Sheehan, director of the FDA’s dairy division, said the inspections came from concerns "about raw-milk cheese made under artisanal conditions" and a flurry of nine artisan cheese recalls last year. As of October, the FDA had inspected 102 facilities, some big, some small. Of the 147 samples taken, 32 tested positive for listeria. The inspections continue.

Bravo, which is cooperating with federal officials, has been cleared to make cheese again. It’s using pasteurized milk.