Cheesemaking is a truly ancient pastime, predating recorded history. And for the vast majority of that time, all cheese was made using raw milk. With the invention of pasteurization during food’s “industrial revolution” and the subsequent commodification of food as a mass-produced good, raw milk consumption went into steep decline, not least in the United States, where pasteurization has been a recommended practice at the federal level since 1924. In 1987, the pasteurization of milk was made mandatory, and the interstate sale of raw milk and its byproducts was banned, with the exception of clearly-labelled raw milk cheeses which had been aged for at least 60 days.
Nonetheless, there are raw milk cheese producers up and down the country who carry on traditional cheesemaking practices. The Oldways Cheese Coalition based out of Boston, Massachusetts brings these traditional and raw milk cheesemakers together, and fights to preserve the vast living heritage that they represent. We spoke to Carlos Yescas, the Coalition’s program director, to find out more about their work in occasion of the third annual Raw Milk Cheese Appreciation Day, held on April 22nd 2017.
“Oldways has been working since 1999,” Carlos tells us. “And the advisory committee decided that we needed to promote a campaign in defense of raw milk in 2004. The Raw Milk Cheese Appreciation Day is now in its third year, and we’ve got a clear objective: to have it recognized by the government as an official food holiday. We’ll be able to ask the United States Congress to do so once we’ve been running the event for five years.
“While the focus of the event is clearly in the United States, fellow raw milk cheesemakers around the world have seen great value in the event, and it’s taken on a global aspect. This is useful for all of us involved in cheesemaking, as we learn more about the diversity of traditions and production methods. This year we have our first partner event in South Africa, alongside other initiatives happening in New Zealand, Brazil, the United Kingdom and Mexico.
“We need to intensify the debate, and get people to understand why raw milk cheese is a good thing, why it needs protecting. Raw milk cheese producers are under immense pressure from large-scale, industrial cheese manufacturers, and the reality is that once it is gone, it will be very difficult to recover. Full pasteurization of all dairy products would be a loss of our food culture.
“In the USA, the situation varies widely from state to state. In the north, where there’s a longer cheesemaking tradition, Massachusetts, Vermont and Wisconsin for example, the state regulatory agencies support raw milk cheesemakers. In other states where cheesemaking is less prominent, or the regulations don’t exist, there’s a lack of resources to sustain the few small-scale producers there.”
So how did Raw Milk Cheese Appreciation Day 2017 unfold?
There were celebrations in over 200 locations around the world, in South Africa, Canada, the USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, Ireland, the UK, Belgium, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Ukraine, Sweden, Austalia and New Zealand. This includes 26 flagship events organized by the members and supporters of the Oldways coalition in collaboration with 14 different companies. Two supermarket chains in the United States, Whole Foods Market and Wegmans, also celebrated Raw Milk Cheese Appreciation Day, involving over 500 stores around the country.
Raw milk cheese producers from across the world will of course be meeting again at Cheese, Slow Food’s biannual event dedicated to cheese. And this year, all our exhibitors will be presenting raw milk cheeses.