Gourmet cheese supporters battle over feds' health concerns

young man eating cheese and bread reading newspaperSupporters of gourmet cheese made from raw milk are squaring off with the government, which is cracking down after finding contamination at two dairies: Missouri's Morningland Dairy and Estrella Family Creamery of Montesano, Wash. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently recalled cheese from those dairies over concerns that eating them could sicken consumers.

At the center of the issue is the use of raw milk in the cheeses. Proponents tout health benefits. But opponents said raw milk can carry dangerous bacteria like Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria. Pasteurization heats the milk to kill bacteria, according to the FDA. Since 1998, more than 800 people across the nation have gotten sick from drinking raw milk or eating cheese made from raw milk.

The heat of pasteurization also kills helpful microorganisms and denatures some of the milk's protein, said Tami Parr, a lawyer-turned-author who runs the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project website. She also is the author of Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest and a cheese maker in her own right.

She added that people who have eaten the same type of cheese made from raw and pasteurized milk have told her there's a significant taste difference between the cheeses. Parr said she has no qualms about consuming raw milk and its products.

"My personal concern about raw milk products is not the raw milk itself, but the practices of the producer," she said. "That's where things can go wrong."

Parr said the cheese and dairy industries are highly regulated and "cheesemakers go into the business knowing that they operate by the good graces of state and federal authorities ... Inspections are part of their everyday existence -- much like restaurants and health departments ... The bottom line is that no one wants to make or sell bad cheese, period."

Supporters of this style of food-making are trying to rally for the dairies. A group of artisan cheese foodies hope consumers will put their wallets where their taste buds are and chip in $5 a pound to support Morningland Dairy. Both Morningland and Estrella are fighting the FDA in court.

Morningland supporters say on their blog: "To be clear, the government will not let you have this cheese, but The Uncheese Party is being held by friends of Morningland Dairy, to make sure the farmers will still make the money they have earned. Your generosity will keep this farm alive, or it will surely be driven out of business by the actions of the 'food police'."

These people are passionate about their cheese. Their goal is to raise $250,000 for the dairy, which has been ordered to destroy 50,000 pounds of recalled cheese -- everything it made since Jan. 1.

The supporters' fervor doesn't surprise Parr. In the wake of the FDA raid on Estrellas' dairy, Parr said she didn't expect consumers to shy away from artisan cheeses because of the federal action -- because they've developed bonds with the local cheese makers through farmer's markets and sustainable food initiatives.

"Some will, for sure," Parr said in an e-mail to Consumer Ally. "But what I"m seeing is mostly exactly the opposite ... they are, in fact, fiercely loyal to them. So at least right now, I am not seeing a revolt away from artisan cheese by any means."

Supporters are also rallying around Estrella dairy, says co-owner Kelli Estrella in a post on the creamery's website Saturday (Oct. 30). The FDA shut down Estrella's facility after inspections tests showed Listeria contamination.

In a post last week that has since been removed from the Estrella site, Kelli Estrella seemed to question the need for health inspections, likening regulations to a loss of personal freedoms. "...I've mostly been thinking about my industry, and how can we get protection not just for us but Morningland dairy too -- in the same predicament, and all the raw milk producers being harassed. Thinking about how terrible it is that in this great nation we can hardly get something as basic as a simple unadulterated glass of health giving milk. And of course that's not all the freedoms we're losing, can you imagine they're trying to take our guns away. The list goes on ..."

"... Even if we get enough support to fight this and pay our bills until we can start selling cheese again, will that be enough? Will I still be subject to FDA inspectors? Am I supposed to keep pouring my heart and soul labors into these cheeses when gestapo like people are allowed to come in here and interrogate me? Pollute my cheese caves with their cameras and their testing tools and just their presence!?. Will anything really change?"

Seattle food writer Rebekah Denn contributed to this report.
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