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What a friend we have in cheeses, so why the raw deal?

By Kate Benson and Kelsey Munro | The Sydney Morning Herald

Provedore’s progress ... Liz Chapman in the cheese room at Simon Johnson’s market in Alexandria yesterday.

Provedore’s progress ... Liz Chapman in the cheese room at Simon Johnson’s market in Alexandria yesterday.
Photo: Jacky Ghossein

CHEESE connoisseurs claim it is denying us a taste sensation.

The Federal Government argues it is to protect our health.

And now you can have your say on the national ban on cheese made with raw milk.

Slow Food Australia and many small cheesemakers want to end a 13-year prohibition on producing cheese from milk that has not been pasteurised.

The non-profit organisation – whose aim is "to counteract fast food and fast life" – has already attracted the signatures of about 2000 cheese lovers on a petition.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand will seek public comment next month on the first of its two-part assessment of raw-milk cheese regulations. A decision on production is due in 2011.

The food standards body's chief scientist, Paul Brent, said its risk assessment suggested that "category three" raw-milk cheeses were "far too risky" to be available for consumers due to the potential for dangerous levels of E.coli, listeria or salmonella. This means soft and fresh-style raw-milk cheeses and unpasteurised drinking milk, sometimes sold under the name "bath milk", are likely to remain outlawed.

But veteran cheese specialist Will Studd said: "The most exciting cheeses are those soft cheeses and blue cheeses made from raw milk, that's really where you see a massive difference in flavour. Australian consumers are still missing out compared with their counterparts overseas."

Hard and semi-hard cheeses made from non-pasteurised milk such as roquefort, parmigiano-reggiano, gruyere, pecorino a romano and grana padano are produced extensively in Europe.

About 600 tonnes of these hard-curd varieties are imported each year. Many in the local cheese industry see this as a double standard that disadvantages Australian cheesemakers.

Raw-milk cheese production is allowed in Canada, the United States and Europe, and soon in New Zealand.

"It's important to recognise that the rest of the world has allowed the production and sale of raw-milk cheese and soft cheeses without any disasters and our cheeses are becoming a laughing stock," Mr Studd said.

Pasteurisation significantly reduces the number of bacteria able to cause illnesses such as listeria, brucellosis, typhoid, tuberculosis and diphtheria. Salmonella and E.coli are also reduced.

But proponents say raw-milk cheese is a superior product that is unlikely to cause illness if production is quality-controlled.

The project co-ordinator for Slow Food Australia's raw-milk cheese campaign, Michael Croft, said the risks can be minimised with correct labelling, independent testing and quality control.

In 1992 60 people in France reportedly died and more became ill from listeria poisoning in a pork product. There have also been reports of cheese-related deaths in Mexico.

The food standards report is due early next month. Until then, Dr Brent would not reveal the local food poisoning statistics related to consumption of raw-milk products on which the risk assessment was based.

Source: The Sun-Herald
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