CHEESE 2001 – Raw Milk Cheeses in the USA – Part Two

18 Sep 2001

Federally, regulations control production of all milk products shipped across state boundaries, and most state regulatory agencies adopt the federal standards—with some variations. These regulations were made for large plants receiving, storing and continuously processing and pasteurizing tons of milk and cheese. These were the regulatory guidelines with which I had to comply. All materials and surfaces in the milk and cheese production are of prescribed materials, each dairy must have hot water, a milk cooling unit in the milk holding room, and recording thermometers to monitor the temperature of milk and milk product storage. Refrigeration is required and monitored at every level. Because we haul our milk a short distance to the cheese plant, we had to build an enclosed garage with concrete floors, hot water etc. to hold the milk hauling tank for washing and sanitizing. Antibiotic testing and records are kept on each load of our own milk that we process. All ingredients must be accompanied by certificates of assurance. In the cheeseplant office we have a large file cabinet that is titled FDA and is full of checklists and information that track products at every stage–temperature records, production sheets, and lab tests. Adapting these regulations to my size and scale were a major initial concern and a costly one. At our cheesemaking facility we process about 370 kilos of milk each week and around 50,000 lbs. or 23,000 kilos of cheese a year. We are completely dependant on our own milk supply and maintain a herd of about 300 goats to maintain a milking line of about 150. Our individual animal average is about 7lbs a day all year round. About 10 years ago, when our herd was about 1/2 that size, the cost of setting up my dairy and cheese plant operation was about $200,000 and this was a minimal operation, depending on all used equipment. Now the cost would probably be over $400,000 for the same facility. While we have no problem selling our product, our margins are very minimal. Actually our pasteurizer was only a small portion of that cost—about $8,000. So costs are significant whether producing raw or pasteurized milk cheeses. US regulatory agencies basically have an unreasonable fear of of all raw milk products and discourage production. They believe that pasteurization is the only real insurance for a safe product. Given the fact that most production in the US involves huge shipments of milk from many producers and is transported for hundreds of miles to large plants—perhaps this is a somewhat justified fear. But there is no distinction made in the size, scope, and nature of various productions, and the emphasis on the initial quality of milk for cheesemaking as a major factor in producing a safe product is not adequately emphasized, except for fluid milk.
For us, the production of raw milk cheeses has pointed the way to other aspects of producing cheeses that stand alone in the marketplace and offer complex flavor profiles that make them unique. Until several years ago, I really had neither the technical skill nor the desire to make raw milk cheeses. I knew that production of these would be a giant red flag to my inspectors and would essentially have them looking for potential problems all the time. In other words, I could easily become a target. I had decided that slow and gentle pasteurization did not really affect flavor, because I had made test batches of unpasteurized and pasteurized fresh cheeses, and felt that the flavor distinctions were minimal. I basically began raw milk production of my aged cheeses as a marketing tool—another way to advertise my product in a market that valued cheeses made in the most traditional way possible. Then I tasted my first batch of these cheeses. There was certainly a depth and unfolding of flavor that I had not been able to achieve in heat- treated milk. The next step was that we had a bacteriophage problem that slowed down our commercial cultures, and the natural flora of our own milk took over and saved that cheese, and made it better. It pointed me in other directions that would maximize the flavors of our own particular milk and the animal genetics and our geography behind it.
Our milk is very distinctive, the result of many years of breeding and managing a herd of primarily Alpine goats. We have selected goats that reflect a flavor and quality profile. While these animals have access to woodland, they primarily lay around in the barn eating hay. In the coming year, we are putting in perimeter fences so that we can intensively graze them. We feel this will produce more of the typical flavors of our geography, as well as improve animal health and be more economical. Since we maintain a closed herd and breed all of our own replacement animals, we are closing the circle of the farm to reflect it’s most unique qualities.
As to the future of raw milk cheese production in the U.S. market, it’s only been recently that a handful of producers, retailers and marketers, represented by the American Cheese Society and then a coalition with Oldways Preservation Trust and
the Cheese Importers of America, have begun the fight to save raw milk cheeses both in the US and in Europe. I’d like to say that I feel optimistic about the outcome, but I am a little old and a little jaded when it comes to working with federal agencies. In the early 70s, we were actively engaged in a battle to prevent the building of a nuclear power plant in our area. While the outcome of this battle was positive it was dictated more by unforeseen economic considerations, rather than by our public opinion campaign. While there is powerful public opinion on the side of raw milk cheeses, I tend to see the federal agencies which govern them as a large steamroller, and the producers of those cheeses, too small and too new to have much power to change it’s progress. That said, I do think there are two things which could change that outcome:
i) The encouragement over the next several years of the production of raw milk cheeses by both large and small producers in the U.S. There is definitely a demand in the market for these products and the more that are made and imported, the more the significant the economic impact if they are eliminated.
ii) The second factor is the development of a significant body of scientific data that reinforces the safety of raw milk cheeses and offers alternatives to pasteurization.
In the meantime I will continue to do my small part by making and eating them, and support the effort to create a demand for them. American cheesemakers are among the most innovative and committed in the world. In a little over 20 years, they have created a small but distinctive body of some of the best cheeses in the world, and they have done so amid obstacles that would have daunted cheesemakers with hundreds of years of experience and tradition behind them. Gradually the cheeses they produce are gaining the same status that American wines have already achieved. What we need are more of our best cheesemakers producing the kinds of cheeses that will change the way the U.S. thinks about cheese.

Judy Schad and her family own Capriole Farm in Indiana, where they produce fresh, ripened and aged farmstead chevres. Schad is a Prud’homme in France’s Guilde de Fromagers, and has won many awards from the American Cheese Society, including a Best of Show Award for her Wabash Cannonball. She is Vice President of the ACS, editor of its newsletter, and was chairman of the ACS 2001 Conference in Louisville, Kentucky.

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