Dick Groves
Editor, Cheese Reporter


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On Raw Milk Cheese, FDA Should Listen To Europe

Back at the end of July, the US Food and Drug Administration asked for comments and data to help the agency identify and evaluate intervention measures that might have an effect on the presence of bacterial pathogens in cheeses made from raw milk. The agency received somewhere around 45 comments during the comment period that ended early last week.

As reported in a lengthy story that starts on our front page this week, comments submitted to FDA touch on a number of subjects pertinent to raw milk cheese, ranging from the 60-day aging rule and HACCP to indicator organisms and product testing.

There are several conclusions that can be reached when reading through these comments, but we’ll mention just a couple here, and they’re related. First, it doesn’t appear that the current 60-day aging rule for raw milk cheese has many, if any, fans outside the US.

Indeed, the current 60-day aging rule is far from universally supported even in the US, where it’s been the rule of law for somewhere around six decades. Just to cite two examples from comments submitted to FDA:

•Crown Finish Caves LLC, a cheese aging facility located in Brooklyn, NY, does not feel science supports the 60-day rule and aging periods “are inconsequential as the risks can be managed.”

•Cellars at Jasper Hill, based in Greensboro Bend, VT, said aging periods are of “no consequence or significance” in its food safety plan, and that the 60-day aging period “aggravates the food safety implications for some of our award winning cheeses.”

For our second conclusion, we note that Cellars at Jasper Hill further recommended that FDA abandon the 60-day aging requirement for raw milk cheese and should harmonize performance criteria for pathogens in both pasteurized and raw milk cheese with EU Regulation No. 2073/2005.

Yes, what FDA should do, or probably should have done years ago, is harmonize its raw milk cheese regulations with those of the European Union. There are at least two good reasons why FDA should now take this approach.

For one thing, as the European Commission pointed out, there is a “long history” of producing many different cheeses from raw milk in the EU, and the legislative basis for the EU food safety system “ensures high safety standards and consumer protection” in regard to such products.

In addition to the reference by Cellars at Jasper Hill noted earlier, at least a couple of other comments include references to the EU’s regulations. For example, the European Commission notes that Regulation (EC) No 853/2004 establishes requirements for raw milk production, the hygiene on farms, and health criteria applicable to raw milk and dairy products (everything from criteria before processing to labeling).

The point here is that the EU has far more experience and expertise in regulating cheese made from raw milk than does the FDA, just as evidenced by the relatively recent regulations (implemented in the 21st century!) that currently are applied to the production and marketing of raw milk cheeses in the EU. FDA probably has nobody working on these rules who’s as old as the rules themselves. The agency should utilize the EU’s vast experience with raw milk cheeses as it reworks US regulations.

Second, the European Commission also noted that the EU has a long history of producing raw milk cheeses “traditionally for domestic production, but increasingly, also for export.”

The EU exports these cheeses to many countries around the world, including the US. Coincidentally, the EU and the US are also currently negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Under that agreement, the US and the EU are seeking greater compatibility of US and EU regulations and related standards development processes.

When it comes to raw milk cheeses, US and EU regulations are currently, well, they’re less than fully compatible. There is absolutely no way the EU would ever agree to include something like the 60-day aging rule in a final TTIP agreement, and in fact it’s a safe bet that the EU will be seeking to export more raw milk cheeses, including some aged less than 60 days, to the US in the future.

The EU also exports some cheese to Australia and New Zealand and, as the American Cheese Society noted in its comments to FDA, the Australian approach detailed in a 2005 report on Roquefort cheese “provides an example of a less-restrictive, science-based path to cheese safety.” Food Standards Australia New Zealand roots pathogen control for Roquefort in the implementation of an effective HACCP-based approach supported by prerequisite programs and animal health, and verified through microbiological testing.

The bottom line to all of this, it seems, is twofold. First, the 60-day aging rule will, eventually, be relegated to the scrap heap of regulatory history. It’s not supported by science, it’s outdated, and it isn’t even supported by everyone in the US cheese industry, let alone by US trading partners such as the EU and Australia.

Second, FDA should be listening to the European Union (and countries such as Switzerland) on this issue. Europe not only has great tradition on its side when it comes to raw milk cheeses, it also has the regulations that bring those raw milk cheesemaking traditions into the global market of the 21st century.

And when (or if) FDA listens and moves its raw milk cheese regulations closer to the EU’s, US cheese makers will be able to continue producing these cheeses without the regulatory uncertainty of recent years. DG


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