Unlocking France’s Secrets to Raw Cheese

Story at-a-glance 

In France, traditional cheese makers strive to understand the microbial communities in raw milk, and thereby in their cheese, in order to harness the natural power of beneficial microbes to keep the bad ones in check

A campaign is underway to have a technical French government manual on cheese microbiology translated into English

This “Holy Grail”of cheese making teaches its users how to harness natural microbes to make cheese safe and exceptionally delicious

A new study found 24 reproducible types of bacteria and fungi on 137 cheeses made from traditional methods in 10 countries, noting “extensive species interactions among community members”

Raw cheese is not an inherently dangerous food, provided high standards are followed in the production of the raw milk and in the cheese-making process; many of the world’s finest cheeses are produced using raw milk

Raw cheese made from the milk of pastured animals is an exceptional nutrient-dense food, and far superior to processed, pasteurized cheeses in terms of nutrition and taste.

In countries like France, the traditional cheese-making process has been crafted over centuries in many cases, and is truly an art form, with each cheese carefully aged and ripened to develop a complex taste and texture that mass-produced cheeses cannot replicate.

This is in large part due to their raw milk content and, in turn, their populations of beneficial bacteria. Not only do these live organisms impart different flavors, from butter to grassy and more, but they also play an integral part in safety.

Unlike in the US, where cheese is mostly pasteurized in order to kill off any and all bacteria, in France, traditional cheese makers strive to understand the microbial communities in raw milk, and thereby in their cheese.

This is done in order to harness the natural power of beneficial microbes to keep the bad ones in check. As London cheese buyer Bronwen Percival told NPR: “Instead of having a war of annihilation on microbes, we should be working with them.”1

‘Holy Grail’ of Raw Milk Cheese to Be Translated to English

Percival has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise about $20,000 to have a technical French government manual on cheese microbiology translated into English.

This isn’t any ordinary manual… it’s referred to as the “Holy Grail” of cheese making because it teaches its users how to harness natural microbes to make cheese safe and exceptionally delicious.

Written by a group of French scientists, “the authors show how protecting the natural diversity of carefully produced raw milk is not only crucial for maintaining the identity and flavor of cheese, but also promotes a barrier effect that can help to protect against the growth of pathogens.”2

There is no such text available in English, which is why the translation could “unlock” France’s secrets to traditional cheese making and help US artisan cheese makers take their cheese to the next level of taste and safety. Cheese microbiology is an incredibly complex field, and as Percival said is “not the kind of thing you can just look up on the Internet.”

Harvard researcher Rachel Dutton published a paper recently that found 24 reproducible types of bacteria and fungi on 137 cheeses made from traditional methods in 10 countries, noting “extensive species interactions among community members.”3

US Regulators Wage War Against Raw Milk Products

Raw milk is used to make some of the world’s finest cheeses, from the Italian Parmigiano Reggiano to the famous French-made Camembert. It’s quite ironic that the same raw-milk cheese that is revered for its taste and complexity in Europe is illegal to transport across state lines in the US, unless it has first been aged for 60 days.

Raw milk cheese is so common in Europe that you can even find it in vending machines, while in the US federal regulators have been threatening to ban raw milk products, including raw cheese, due to what they claim are increased safety risks – safety risks that have been greatly overblown.

According to Grist, between 1973 and 1999, there’s not a single report of illness from either raw or pasteurized cheeses.4 However, since the year 2000, illnesses have begun to appear from raw and pasteurized cheese alike. Most outbreaks have been found to result from post-production contamination and laxity in quality control, not lack of pasteurization.

The truth is that raw cheese is not inherently dangerous, provided high-quality assurance standards are followed in the production of the raw milk and in the cheese-making process. The quality of both will depend on the source, of course, which is why it’s so important to find farmers that hold themselves to high standards.

You will not find high safety standards at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are run under a business model that promotes disease in its animals and contamination in their milk and meat.

Many raw-milk dairies, on the other hand, have exceptional standards. California, specifically, has its own special set of standards for raw milk for human consumption, in which farmers must meet or exceed pasteurized milk standards, without pasteurizing. You can learn more about how to identify high-quality sources of raw milk here.

The key is to personally visit the farm and ask the farmer questions. Dale Tuck, for instance, who recently opened a raw-milk dairy in the Ahwatukee Foothills area of Arizona, said that the quality of his raw milk is maintained by “meticulous cleanliness.”5

Raw-Milk Cheese from High-Quality Sources Is Safe

As far as cheese is concerned, hard cheeses like cheddar dry out as they age, making them relatively inhospitable to invading bacteria. And, when produced according to traditional practices, the microbial community in the cheese can help to reduce contamination risks naturally.

The FDA’s attack on raw cheese is not based on facts, but simply is an extension of their long-standing hostility toward raw milk in general. The fact of the matter is that no food is entirely safe, but raw milk, and raw-milk cheese, is no more dangerous than cantaloupes, tomatoes, lettuce, and any other commonly consumed food.

In fact, it may actually be less dangerous than pasteurized milk and cheese. The vast majority of foodborne illnesses in the US is linked to CAFO and highly processed foods, not raw foods.

For example, late last year Chobani Greek yogurt was recalled following reports of gastrointestinal illness.6 The yogurt, which is pasteurized and not raw, was found to be contaminated with a fungus called Murcor circinelloides. Earlier this year, there was also a listeria outbreak that was traced back to soft and semi-soft Hispanic-style pasteurized cheese. All recent listeria outbreaks have involved produce or pasteurized milk products, not raw milk!

Mark McAfee, CEO of Organic Pastures Dairy and an internationally recognized expert in raw milk production and safety, has on many occasions tried to set the record straight with US authorities, to no avail. In a 2012 letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), he wrote:7

“As a grade A producer of retailed-approved raw milk in California, I find your raw milk page filled with highly erroneous and very misleading information… In California, we have legal retail-approved raw milk in 400 stores consumed by 75,000 consumers each week.

This retail legal raw milk is tested and state inspected and far exceeds pasteurized milk product standards without any heat or processing. It is clean raw milk from a single source dairy. There have been no deaths from raw milk in California in 37 years.

Two years ago, I submitted a FOIA request to the CDC to request data on the two deaths that the CDC database claims were from raw milk. The data I received back from the CDC showed that in fact there had been no death from raw milk at all. The two deaths had been from illegal Mexican bath tub cheese and not raw milk from any place in America. Why does the CDC persist in publishing this erroneous information? …The last people to die from milk died from pasteurized milk at Whittier farms in 2007, not from raw milk.”

High-Quality Cheese Is Excellent for Your Health

Natural cheese is a simple fermented dairy product, made with nothing more than a few basic ingredients — milk, starter culture, salt, and an enzyme called rennet. Processed cheese or “cheese food” is a different story. These products are typically pasteurized and otherwise adulterated with a variety of additives that detract from their nutritional value. When prepared traditionally, as most raw-milk cheeses are, cheese offers a wealth of good nutrition, including:

  • High-quality protein and amino acids
  • High-quality saturated fats and omega-3 fats
  • Vitamins and minerals, including calcium, zinc, phosphorus, vitamins A, D, B2 (riboflavin), and B12
  • Vitamin K2
  • CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a powerful cancer-fighter and metabolism booster

Ideally, the cheese you consume should be made from the milk of pastured animals, which will impart even more health benefits. Raw cheese made from pastured milk has flavors that derive from the pastureland that nourished the animals producing the milk, much like wine is said to draw its unique flavors from individual vineyards. Grass-fed dairy products not only taste better, they are also nutritionally superior:

  • Cheese made from the milk of grass-fed cows has the ideal omega-6 to omega-3 fat ratio of 2:1. By contrast, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of grain-fed milk is heavily weighted on the side of omega-6 fats (25:1), which are already excessive in the standard American diet. Grass-fed dairy combats inflammation in your body, whereas grain-fed dairy contributes to it.
  • Grass-fed cheese contains about five times the CLA of grain-fed cheese.
  • Because raw cheese is not pasteurized, natural enzymes in the milk are preserved, increasing its nutritional punch.
  • Grass-fed cheese is considerably higher in calcium, magnesium, beta-carotene, and vitamins A, C, D, and E.
  • Organic grass-fed cheese is free of antibiotics and growth hormones.

My top picks are Gouda, Brie, and Edam cheese, as these are good sources of vitamin K2, but you also can’t go wrong with high-quality cheddar, Swiss, Colby, Gruyere, and goat cheese. Cheese is unique in that it offers a synergistic blend of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and omega-3 fatty acids, including the magic trio of vitamin D3, vitamin K2, and calcium. This nutrient triad is vitally important for reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis, so don’t be afraid to include high-quality cheese in your regular diet. Also, don’t be afraid of raw cheese (as long as it comes from a reputable cheese maker), which beats ordinary cheese in both taste and nutrition.

Remember, Food Safety Depends on Its Source

Health officials have been waging a war against raw milk and raw-milk cheese, but, as mentioned, these are not inherently “risky” foods. It’s important to keep in mind that the potential for foodborne illness applies to ANY food, and where it comes from is probably the greatest indicator of whether it’s likely to be safe or contaminated. Ultimately, the key to making sure that any food you eat is safe is to get it from a high-quality source. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. When you get your produce from small farmers that raise their food in natural settings using clean water, as opposed to massive agribusiness conglomerations that use sewage sludge as fertilizer, there is very little risk in eating these foods raw.

The same goes for meat, eggs, and raw dairy products, as well. I suggest browsing through my Sustainable Agriculture resource page to find farmer’s markets, family farms, and other sources of safe, high-quality food. Not only are these sources likely to raise food in more sanitary conditions than a conventional agribusiness farm, but there’s a better chance that it will also be locally grown and, in the case of cheese, made using traditional methods. The closer you are to the source of your food, the fewer hands it has to pass through and the less time it will sit in storage — so the better, and likely safer, it will be for you and your family.


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