Often ordinary consumers struggle to understand the importance of making cheese from raw milk, milk that hasn’t been treated by heating it to high temperatures. One way to explain this issue is with the metaphor of a forest…
Imagine that you’ve inherited or bought a large, thriving, pristine forest. And because you love nature, you decide to build your house in the middle of the forest. The vegetation isn’t a problem, but you’ll have to think carefully about the wild animals that live in the area. Think of the fauna typical to where you live: If you live in the mountains for example, in addition to the myriad species of bacteria, microorganisms and insects that you can’t see and are generally harmless, you’ll also have birds, squirrels, wild boar, perhaps deer. These are all animals that don’t create particular problems; in fact you’d like to live and interact with them.
However, the forest might also be home to foxes, wolves and even bears, animals that could cause a nuisance or be dangerous. Though you know it’s very rare for people to be attacked by wolves or bears, especially if the environment offers abundant food resources and is not threatened by pollution or excessive human-use, you want to protect yourself from possible bad encounters. So you decide to kill all the life in the forest. Let’s say you have a gas that exterminates every living creature and that you use it.
Now there are no more dangers, but without animals the forest is dead, silent and boring. In the long term it couldn’t even survive. So you introduce some nice little animals: brightly colored birds, puppies, turtles, whatever you like, collecting them from here and there, without worrying if they are typical to that forest or even that region. You’ve transformed a living, natural system, able to self-regulate and survive most calamities and environmental disasters, into a kind of zoo, an unnatural monster, created only to entertain you and to guarantee your peace of mind. With one problem, however: If a predator arrives from a nearby forest, it won’t find any competitors and will be able to reach you and your little house without any problems!
Now, think of milk as like the forest. The vegetation represents the fats, caseins, minerals and so on, while the forest fauna represents the microflora present in the milk and the surrounding environment. This will give you an idea of what happens when you pasteurize that milk: You kill everything, turning something living and vital into an inert, dead substance. And to bring it back to life you have to introduce artificial microorganisms, from outside that environment.
Of course you’ll find microbiologists, food scientists and technicians who’ll explain how this system allows you to avoid ingesting coliform bacteria, salmonella, etc. In other words, to return to the metaphor, it keeps you safe from wolves and bears. They’ll explain how progress inevitably comes with certain losses (of taste, naturalness, variety) but that it means everyone can enjoy an extraordinary level of food safety. You might try to argue, saying that it’s very rare for a bear (salmonella) to kill someone, that the important thing is to keep the forest healthy, without polluting it, without altering the vegetative and reproductive cycles, without stressing it, and then the animals will be uninterested in humans.
But the experts will not listen to reason: Pasteurization is progress, and the rest is barbarism or poetry. So the forests disappear, the wolves die out, the bears and boars are forced to scavenge garbage to find food. Outside the metaphor, in real life, these safe cheeses no longer taste of anything, and are all the same from Singapore to South Africa. They’re ready for a global market that no longer wants to take the trouble to differentiate, to understand, to listen to the stories that real cheeses can tell. As the Roman historian Tacitus would say, they have created a desert and called it food safety.
Piero Sardo is the President of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity
Photo: © Alberto Peroli