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A Brief Foray Into Cheese Making and the Law

This topic was inspired by Lyonette Louis-Jacques’ post on Homebrewing Laws Worldwide. Shortly after reading her post, I found an article about a Wisconsin law in effect in the 1930’s that required restaurants to serve a small amount of butter and cheese at every meal. This law was probably meant to support dairy farmers recovering from the Great Depression and was only in effect for two years. Since I am a part-time Wisconsin Cheesehead, I set out to do some research on the law of cheese and cheese making. Prior research had confirmed that cheese and beer are great together.

The results of a search in FAOSTAT, the statistical database of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, revealed that in 2012 the United States was the world’s largest cheese producer with 5,295,737 metric tons. The next three largest producers were Germany, France and Italy with 2,071,090; 1,922,114; and 1,276,332 metric tons respectively. Canada produced 425,360 and the United Kingdom 390,000.

With so much cheese being produced the US has developed a large body of laws and regulations concerning the cheese making process and the dairy industry. The authority given to the Department of Health and Human Services to regulate and inspect food can be found in volume 21 of the United States Code in sections 321, 341, 343, 348, 371 and 379e. The regulations covering cheese are in volume 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations under Subchapter B – Food For Human Consumption Part 133 – Cheeses And Related Cheese Products. Part 133 has specific regulations for manufacturing and labeling all types of cheeses including that amazing invention – pasteurized process cheese food - which is mixed “into a homogeneous plastic mass.” According to recent statistics from the US Department of Agriculture, in 2011 mozzarella was the most popular cheese with cheddar coming in second. The total cheese available per person in the US was a whopping 33 pounds.

The Canadian regulations covering cheese can be found in the Dairy Products Regulations which are promulgated “pursuant to sections 3, 5 and 8 and subsection 10(4) of the Canada Agricultural Products Standards Act.”  These “Regulations Respecting the Registration of Establishments, the Operation and Maintenance of Registered Establishments, the Grading, Inspection, Packing and Labelling of Dairy Products and International and Interprovincial Trade in Dairy Products” are administered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The rise in the popularity of hand-made artisanal cheeses in Canada and the US led to a joint study of the possible causes and risks of contamination involved in making soft cheeses. The Joint FDA / Health Canada Quantitative Assessment of the Risk of Listeriosis from Soft-Ripened Cheese Consumption in the United States and Canada: Draft Report.was released in 2012.

Among the many responses to that draft report was the comment of the American Cheese Society (ACS). Founded in 1983 now 42% of ACS members are small cheesemakers and their mission statement is to “provide the cheese community with educational resources and networking opportunities, while encouraging the highest standards of cheesemaking focused on safety and sustainability.” They were “concerned that the conclusions and take-away messages from the risk assessment may be based on an incomplete data set and thus may not be wholly accurate. First, the report suggests to consumers and regulators that soft-ripened cheeses carry a high risk of contamination with Listeria monocytogenes; when in fact, the evidence and history suggest that the risks are low from such cheeses made in compliance with current regulations. Second, as reflected in media coverage, the report suggests that soft-ripened cheeses made from unpasteurized milk are significantly more risky than those made from pasteurized milk; when in fact, the analysis indicates that at least one strategy considered in the report can reduce risk in raw milk products below that of pasteurized products.” In addition to those comments the ACS issued a Statement on the Safety of Raw Milk Cheese.

While the US Food and Drug Administration warns that raw milk is dangerous both Canada and the US do allow the sale of raw milk cheeses that have been aged for 60 days or more. Only the Province of Quebec allows the sale of raw milk cheese aged less than 60 days because of its French heritage of cheesemaking. My arrière-grand-père Michaud from Quebec was a grocer and I assume he sold raw milk cheeses in St. Paul, Minnesota. I would like to see that tradition of fine local artisanal cheeses, whether raw milk or pasteurized, continue to thrive and grow in North America. I have been enjoying them in Wisconsin, most recently this blue cheese I found in January at the Dane County Farmer’s Market in Madison.

Now that you have explored a small slice of the law of cheese and before you reach for the cheeseboard and stein, please take this Huffington Post test of What Your Favorite Cheese Says About You.  I chose cheddar.

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Comments

  1. As they say in the Life of Brian, “Blessed are the cheesemakers.”

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