Raw-milk cheese regulations are notoriously complex. Regulations are messy and often riddled with scientific jargon, amendments and articles and addendums, and all of this is almost by definition hard to interpret. Moreover, although the various documents exist in libraries and buried amidst expansive government websites, nowhere are they aggregated in one convenient place. What’s more, understanding the history and evolution of regulations, necessary to fully understand what they mean and why they’re in place, takes some serious sleuth work. In the name of education, we have tried to take some of the guesswork out it.
The safety of unpasteurized (raw) milk cheese is an important regulatory debate in nearly every country or region with a prominent cheese industry.
Here you will find outlines of current cheese and cheesemaking regulations for Australia, Canada, the European Union, and the United States. Each has its own unique regulatory history and have varying policies when it comes to the safety, legality, and economic importance of raw-milk cheese.
Pasteurized cheese is defined as cheese produced with milk that has been heated to a temperature of 161°F for fifteen seconds or to 145°F for thirty minutes or more. The definition of unpasteurized cheese remains somewhat less clear and depending on the regulatory authority, can indicate cheese whose milk has not been raised over the temperature of the milk at the time of milking (roughly 104°F) prior to the setting of the curd or cheese that has been heat treated but at no more than 160°F. Thermization is a compromise between pasteurization and no heat treatment and involves brining milk up to 131°F for two to sixteen seconds. All cheeses that are not by definition pasteurized are considered raw for legal and regulatory purposes.
Below, we briefly describe regulatory standards of cheese and cheesemaking as they currently exist in a few key political domains, as well as provide access to primary documents and links to articles that can help to provide more information and, in the end, better understanding.
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Regulations on cheese and cheesemaking in Australia are governed by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand agency (FSANZ). This governing body is an independent statutory agency that works to develop effective food standards in collaboration with the Australian and New Zealand governments.
As outlined in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (ANZFSC), in Australia it is currently illegal to make, import, or sell cheese made from unpasteurized (raw) milk of any age. Since 1996 when these measures were enacted, heat treatment is considered an important public health measure to destroy possible microbiological hazards. It is the benchmark public health and safety measure for dairy foods in the country.
Certain hard, cooked European cheeses are exempt from these regulations including prominently Parmagiano-Reggiano, Gruyère, and Emmental. Regulations require that for a raw-milk cheese to be approved it must satisfy a level of safety equivalent to cheeses made from heat-treated or pasteurized milk.
More recently (2008) a special exemption was granted for Roquefort, after a long and extensive legislative battle. Will Studd, importer and evangelist of the Australian artisan cheese community, spearheaded the efforts to make Roquerfort a legislative exception and eventually won on appeal. In the meanwhile he was forced to bury over 80kg of the eponymous French blue cheese. FSANZ determined that the cheese was a low risk to public health and safety. Domestic versions made in the same style remain illegal to produce or sell and this is an obvious point of legislative contention.
As of early 2014, Food Safety Australia New Zealand is seeking comment on a proposal to permit production and sale of an increased range of raw-milk products in Australia. The proposal would permit the production and sale of raw-milk cheese as long as significant measures are in place to ensure safety and that these measures are demonstrably effective.
Find out more at the links below:
Roquefort Special Permission Report - LEARN MORE
FSANZ code requiring pasteurization or thermization and minimum aging of cheese - LEARN MORE
FSANZ raw-milk processing standards discussion paper - LEARN MORE
FSANZ raw-milk dairy product regulations review papers - LEARN MORE
FSANZ permission standard for Swiss raw-milk cheese - LEARN MORE
FSANZ 2014 Raw Milk Processing Proposal - LEARN MORE
The governing body regulating cheese and cheesemaking in Canada is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). It is currently permitted to sell unpasteurized (raw) milk cheeses that have been aged for a minimum of 60 days.
Like the United States and elsewhere, regulations regarding the production, import, and sale of raw-milk cheese in Canada have been contested terrain. In 1996, after a number of foodborne illnesses were associated with raw-milk cheese, a proposed federal measure to outlaw unpasteurized cheese created political tension between Health Canada, cheese producers and politicians, harboring concerns for national unity and international trade relations. An expert scientific advisory committee was formed to determine whether pasteurization was a necessary requirement to ensure healthy cheese. It determined that no such requirement was necessary and the bill proceeded no further.
As of 2008, it is permitted in the province of Quebec to produce and sell raw-milk cheese so long as strict hygiene, monitoring, and inspection standards are maintained. Quebec has a long history of political discord with the rest of the country and accounts for over half of the specialty cheese production in Canada. This policy is not officially recognized by Canadian federal authorities but to date no legal action nor scientific challenges have been taken.
In 2012, the FDA and Health Canada joint commissioned a risk assessment document looking specifically at L. monocytogenes in soft ripened cheese (Camembert-type). It provides estimates of the associated risk and of the effectiveness of reduction measures and is designed to provide risk managers with science-based information to use when making decisions about food policies related to foodborne illness and public health. Although the study continues to undergo the comment process, initial results indicate that both raw-milk and pasteurized milk cheese carry some risk of Listeria. Interestingly, one of the conclusions was that removing the regulations requiring a minimum of 60-day aging would reduce the amount of time for pathogens to grow in soft-ripened cheese and would reduce the risk of listeriosis from eating raw-milk soft-ripened cheese. The American Cheese Society has expressed concern that the assessment is based on incomplete data and thus may not be wholly accurate.
Since 2001, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has permitted imports from France of soft and semi-soft cheese made from unpasteurized milk to be sold in Canada without a 60-day storage period.
Find out more at the links below:
Draft of the Canada Health/FDA joint risk assessment of Listeriosis and soft-ripened cheese - LEARN MORE
Canada Health presentation on moving forward with raw-milk soft-ripened cheese - LEARN MORE
Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulatory information concerning dairy roducts - LEARN MORE
Raw-milk cheese in Canada paper by Dr. David Hornsby - LEARN MORE
A description of raw-milk regulations in the province of Quebec (in French) - LEARN MORE
The European Union (EU) is the regulatory body governing cheese and cheesemaking throughout Europe. It is currently legal to produce, import, and sell unpasteurized (raw) milk cheese of any age provided extensive sanitary and milk-quality measures are strictly followed. Cheese that is made with raw milk must be clearly labeled as such.
To ensure strict sanitary conditions, regulations include but are not limited to regular plant inspection by competent authorities. The extent of supervision by competent authorities is dependent upon the size of the production facility, the type of product being manufactured, and established risk assessments.
The necessary use of milk from healthy animals is considered an essential criterion for cheese production. These controls include limits to somatic cell count, bacterial count, and antibiotic use. Moreover, hygienic-processing facilities are mandatory and required to be kept in satisfactory state of cleanliness and repair, secluded from animal contact, and sanitized with approved disinfectants. Instruments and equipment likely to come in contact with products and raw materials must be easy to clean and disinfect.
Importantly, EU regulations are transparent in articulating that economic factors are considered in current legislation. EU authorities recognize that the production of and trade in dairy products is an important source of income for the agricultural population. So long as the established regulations guarantee a high level of protection for the public health, additional factors must be duly considered.
The presence of the protected place-based denomination system for cheeses throughout EU is another matter of regulatory concern. Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) laws protect and promote names of quality agricultural products and food stuffs throughout the European Union. Geographical Indications support the production and integrity of traditional cheeses, of which there were 176 in 2010, and ensure that they are not confused with fraudulent facsimiles of unknown quality. In recent years, cheese PDO’s have become a hot topic in respect to international trade, particularly cheeses like Feta and Brie which have long histories of quality production in multiple countries and whose names are so infamous that they are often considered a general category in the popular imagination. Cheese PDO’s can create consumer clarity but they also ensure contest in the international regulatory arena.
Also important to note is the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) which is comprised of 176 countries and one member organization, the European Community. This governing body develops food safety standards and manages risk at the international level. It relies on scientific advice by expert committees convened by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). This commission advises member countries and fosters dialogue in respect to the most current scientific data and risk assessments. While limited to providing recommendations for voluntary application, Codex standards often significantly influence the legislation of member countries.
Find out more at the links below:
European Union regulations regarding the production, import, and sale of raw-milk cheese - LEARN MORE
European Commission definitions of PDO, PGI, and TSG designations - LEARN MORE
Codex Alimentarius Commission general standard for cheese - LEARN MORE
EU Wood-Aging Policy Information - LEARN MORE
Codex Code of Hygienic Practice for Milk Products - LEARN MORE
Current United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation states that cheese can be made from unpasteurized (raw) milk so long as the cheese has undergone an aging process no less than 60 days at a temperature no less than 35° F. This applies to cheeses made domestically as well as those that have been imported.
Certain cheese styles are excluded from this rule including: fresh and soft-ripened cheeses which must be pasteurized no matter what extent they are intended to age. Although no new legislation has been passed for many years (since 1949), the FDA is hypersensitive to safety of raw-milk cheese. Specifically of concern in recent years has been the efficacy of the 60-day aging rule in mitigating risk factors associated with raw milk cheese.
In early 2014 the FDA implemented a year-long pilot program to sample domestic and imported raw-milk cheese aged over the current minimum of 60 days. These samplings are specifically attuned to the presence of salmonella, L. monocytogenes, and E. coli 0157:H7. General information and sampling results are unlikely to be released earlier than January 2015, and likely later.
To date, no evidence has been found that convincingly argues for immediate reassessment of current raw-milk safety laws.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is the governing legislation for food production in America. Passed by President Obama in 2011 it was the first major overhaul of the nation’s food safety practices since 1938.
The FSMA grants powers to the federal government with the intent to protect our food supply and these powers include the ability to mandate a federal recall of food proven unsafe by the FDA. On the heels of a number of food-borne illness scares in recent years, it gives regulatory teeth to the FDA and bestows authority for which various regulatory agencies have long sought.
With the passing of the FSMA the federal government has transitioned to a proactive approach towards food safety. Rather than wait until a problem arises, the FDA now has expanded regulatory power to prevent problems before they occur. This means that food producers are expected to identify potential risks, create controls to prevent contamination, and monitor these controls to ensure they remain effective. Food producers are still expected to self-regulate, but new oversight and inspection measures are in place to insure they do so adequately. Documenting these controls and measures is absolutely critical.
In mid-2014, the long established technique of aging cheese on wood boards became a topic of controversy and received significant popular press and political attention. The tension was catalyzed by federal review of a particular cheesemaker’s facility in Upstate New York which suggested that wood was not a sufficiently hygienic surface to age cheese because it could harbor bacteria and pathogenic microorganisms. Scientists, politicians, cheesemakers, and the general public banded together to dispute the claim and to emphasize that such a decision, if followed to its full extent, would have devastating consequences on the artisan and traditional cheese community. The result was a clarifying statement from the FDA that reiterated that utensils and surfaces that come in contact with the cheese must be adequately cleanable and properly maintained, but emphasized that it does not have a new policy banning the use of wood shelving and that it does not have data that directly associates instances of contamination with the use of wood shelving.
Find out more at the links below:
FDA rules regarding the production, import, and sale of raw-milk cheese - LEARN MORE
The Food Safety Modernization Act - LEARN MORE
The FSMA's significance - LEARN MORE
The initial statement from Branch Chief Monica Metz regarding the use of wood shelves for cheese aging - LEARN MORE
The clarifying statement from the FDA regarding its position on wood boards for aging cheese - LEARN MORE
An extrapolation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) as it applies specifically to cheese and cheesemakers - LEARN MORE