Ending the War on Artisan Cheese and the Movement to Protect Integrity and Secure Access

Ending the war on artisan cheese Catherine Donnelly

A French chef was recently asked in a Slow Food interview what he considered the biggest threat in the food industry. His reply was:

“Hippocrates said, ‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food’. And in fact, we heal our guests. The word “heal” is rich in meaning for us.”

He defended the use of old-fashioned food varieties like einkorn, the symbiotic relationship with the land, as well as the nutrient-density and sensory qualities of food. How food is produced influences its status and desirability. The international Slow Food movement regularly joins forces with a variety of individuals and organisations, to strengthen food sovereignty, biodiversity, terroir (taste of place) and sustainable farming. The debate on natural food is getting stronger internationally, and even though the Australian media is still silent on the benefits of expanding on raw dairy, there is much momentum behind making changes.

In Australia, industrial dairy has become unsustainable, with drought and overpriced water and feed. Dairy multinationals are trying to maintain a monopoly, and farmers say supermarkets “have pulled the wool over Australia” by not passing on increases in milk prices to struggling farmers. Some farmers are questioning if there is an agenda behind government inaction. Some farmers have no hope of making a living, and then there is the threat of genetic manipulation of the food supply. On the subject of genetic alteration, another article recently asked: what is wrong with trying to create a product when seemingly sound justification is given? The reason why we are currently experiencing so many health issues is that we have already tampered with nature enough, to have caused the imbalance in the first place.

Today it was announced that South Australia decided to lift its ban and allow genetically modified crops in December. In a surprising twist for GMO proponents, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will advocate the safety assessment and regulation of all GM animals that have their genomes manipulated using new gene editing methods. Slow Food is another organisation who opposes the use of genetically modified organisms.

As a result of all the transformation and tumult in food systems, there is a growing movement to appreciate and protect artisan cheese heritage, against the pressure to industrialise, and the foisting of restrictive food safety regulations that are ill-suited to the needs, and conditions of small-scale dairy producers. This article is a brief look at some of the latest developments.

raw milk study health benefits

A new study was published showing that after regular consumption of raw milk, immune depressed adults experienced a strong improvement of their health, immunity, bowel problems and mood.

Ending the War on Artisan Cheese by Catherine Donnelly Ph.D

The Inside Story of Government Overreach and the Struggle to Save Traditional Raw Milk Cheesemakers

An exciting new book will be published in November 2019 that has the potential to be game changer in the fight against “unscientific regulation”. The author Catherine Donnelly’s publisher, Chelsea Green Publishing, wrote:

“A prominent food scientist defends the use of raw milk in traditional artisan cheesemaking.

“Raw milk cheese—cheese made from unpasteurized milk—is an expansive category that includes some of Europe’s most beloved traditional styles: Parmigiano Reggiano, Gruyère, and Comté, to name a few. In the United States, raw milk cheese forms the backbone of the resurgent artisan cheese industry, as consumers demand local, traditionally produced, and high-quality foods. Internationally award-winning artisan cheeses like Bayley Hazen Blue (Jasper Hill, VT) would have been unimaginable just forty years ago when American cheese meant Kraft Singles.

“Unfortunately the artisan cheese industry faces an existential regulatory threat. Over the past thirty years the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has edged toward an outright ban on raw milk cheeses. Their assault on traditional cheesemaking goes beyond a debate about raw milk safety; the FDA has also attempted to ban the use of wooden boards, the use of ash in cheese ripening, and has set stringent microbiological criteria that many artisan cheeses cannot meet. The David versus Goliath existence of small producers fighting crushing regulations is true in parts of Europe as well, where beloved creameries are going belly-up or being bought out because they can’t comply with EU health ordinances. Centuries-old cheese styles like Fourme d’Ambert and Cantal are nearing extinction, leading Prince Charles to decry the “bacteriological correctness” of European regulators.

“Catherine Donnelly serves up a compelling case for food regulation based on scientific evidence, not special interests, reminding us in the process of our duty to cherish and support small-scale, independent producers endangered by the encroachment of multinationals.”
- Bronwen Percival, coauthor of Reinventing the Wheel

“The dirty secret is that Listeria and other bacterial outbreaks occur in pasteurized cheeses more often than in raw milk cheeses, and traditional processes like ash-ripening have been proven safe. In Ending the War on Artisan Cheese, Dr. Catherine Donnelly forcefully defends traditional cheesemaking, while exposing government actions in the United States and abroad designed to take away food choice under the false guise of food safety. This book is fundamentally about where and how our food is produced, the values we place on methods of food production, and how the roles of tradition, heritage, and quality often conflict with advertising, politics, and profits in influencing our food choices.”

The same website describes Dr. Catherine Donnelly as a professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont and an expert on Listeria and other foodborne pathogens. In 2017 Dr. Donnelly won the James Beard Award for Reference and Scholarship for her work as the editor-in-chief of The Oxford Companion to Cheese, the most comprehensive cheese encyclopedia ever published. Dr. Donnelly is also the editor of the book Cheese and Microbes.

“This bold and compelling book reveals the shocking truth behind why powerful industrial dairy producers are on a mission to impose a ban on all raw milk cheese, and how US regulators are blatantly misrepresenting credible scientific studies to intimidate and threaten the country’s growing number of artisan cheesemakers. Make no mistake, the stakes are high. Unless the confrontation ends soon, artisan cheese with an authentic taste of place will disappear.”
- Will Studd, host and executive producer, Cheese Slices
“Friends of raw milk cheese could not have a more knowledgeable, rational, and persuasive expert on their side than Catherine Donnelly. Detail by appalling detail, Dr. Donnelly lays bare the thin scientific support for many FDA regulations on food safety. Her exposé may enrage you, but that’s the point. Informed and indignant consumers willing to fight for traditional foodways can win this war.”
- Janet Fletcher, publisher, Planet Cheese blog

Food writer Joanna Blythman wrote in this article about the book, that celebrated raw milk cheesemakers on both sides of the Atlantic face an existential threat from regulators intent on either forcing them to pasteurise their milk under the guise of food safety, or driving them out of production. Just this week the FDA has denied a large petition to allow interstate sales of raw milk in the US.

Joanna writes, that the book predominantly talks of the US situation, where Dr. Donnelly argues that that instead of using sound science and education to help artisan cheesemakers, as has been the case in Switzerland, “the FDA has instead used fear and intimidation”, notably the imposition of excessively stringent microbiological standards, “without the necessary scientific evidence that these standards afforded public health protection”.

Joanna as a food journalist herself, has kept raw milk cheese enthusiasts informed on the latest news for years, particularly on the recent Errington case in Scotland. The Errington raw milk cheesemaking company was implicated in a tragic e.coli incident, and had to go to court (successfully) on several occasions to defend its products and reputation against the overreach of Food Standards Scotland. No food has a perfect food safety record, yet raw milk and raw milk cheese have been singled out with an expectation to have a perfect food safety record, or else be demonised in the public eye. Joanna recently wrote in a tweet:

“Raw milk #cheese is a high-performing hero category in the resurgent consumer demand for traditionally produced foods. Any agency or public body that conspires to put it out of business has a fight on its hands.”

A UK Raw Drinking Milk Review out of proportion

It is also of interest that a recent review was titled Gastrointestinal infections caused by consumption of raw drinking milk in England & Wales, 1992–2017. It takes data between 1992-2002 and 2014-2017. Many individuals and producers in both raw drinking milk (RDM), and raw milk cheese arenas, prefer to have a distinction and separation between the two maintained. Both camps often agree, that they are two very different products, with different systems, conditions, behaviours, and expectations. Most dairy farmers around the world did not know how to produce the pathogen-free raw milk for human consumption that consumers were looking for, until organisations like the Raw Milk Institute came into being nine years ago, and started to provide raw milk food safety standards, farmer education and farmer-to-farmer mentoring. Raw milk cheese, on the other hand, has a long, rich and established production history in Europe with the use of traditional techniques that increase food safety.

The authors of the review seem to fail to consider that not all systems are equal… in more ways than one. Not all RDM systems are equal either. As a result, there is much room for improvement on system level. Some RDM systems around the world leave room for potential error by not installing sufficient controls,

providing sufficient detail or updating their systems. Some, like the media, heap blame on dairy farmers, when in fact systems can be inadequate, or improved instead. Another article describes why it is important to install the right controls and weed out the dysfunctional, and create a fair system for consumers and dairy farmers. Many writings that disrepute raw dairy fail to mention these details simply by omission. Many can get away with the fact that readers simply don’t know or understand the details.

The authors of the raw drinking milk review seems to have decided - for good measure - to add an incident where the death of an adult was “associated” with raw milk cheese, but then in tiny fine print the words “probable cause of death” was added. Joanna has described in many of her articles over the years how determined authorities can be to disrepute raw dairy products, even in the face of sometimes expert testimony, and other evidence in some individual cases showing that it was not to blame. It’s also worth a mention that since early 2018 the Raw Milk Producer’s Association in the UK started collaboration with the Food Standards Agency and raw milk experts to improve raw drinking milk systems and farmer training. Also note that the review acknowledged that in England and Wales, outbreaks linked to the consumption of RDM are rare.

#Cheese2019 Nature is possible, Bra Italy

The Slow Food movement is particularly strong in Italy, where the 12th edition of Cheese, an internationally-renowned event took place, promoting the heritage, traditions, innovations, and beauty of natural cheesemaking.

Raw milk cheese enthusiasts descended from all over the world to the three day event in September. For the movement, the quality of artisan cheese is based on the conditions on different farms, like the contributions that variations in pasture, local livestock breeds, the skill of the herders and cheesemakers, and the use of natural microbiology in liquid raw milk make, instead of uniform industrial starter cultures. Watch the inspiring video above.

The organisation Slow Food gives great importance to natural systems of food production as solutions to the climate crisis. The event took place while leaders from government, business, and civil society discussed potentially far-reaching steps to address climate change at the United Nations Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit in New York. The debate on natural food products proposed this year at #Cheese2019 is an evolution of the twenty-year battle over raw milk. It has opened up new prospects for the future, thanks to the contributions made by academics, agronomists, nutritionists, herders and cheesemakers. As their testimony demonstrates, the production of natural cheeses has a positive impact both on the environment and biodiversity.

University degree in Raw Milk and Cheese!

During the event, the University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo, Italy announced the first annual international Master’s degree in Raw Milk and Cheese, which will teach dozens of students the art of natural cheesemaking starting from January 2021. It was met with great enthusiasm. The course will take one year to complete, during which the students will get to know the entire dairy chain in detail.

“The program of Cheese 2019 was intertwined with environmental issues: a natural system of food production is an essential component of any resolution to this climate crisis, both as producers and consumers”
- Carlo Petrini, president and founder of Slow Food.

Watch more inspiring interviews here, with interviews by Jonny Crickmore of the Raw Milk Producers Association UK, and cheesemaker David Asher.

The interview below is with Bronwen Percival of Neal’s Yard Dairy in the UK. Bronwen is co-author of another exciting book on raw milk cheese titled Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes and the Fight for Real Cheese.

Cheesefest & Ferment: A raw milk cheese festival in Adelaide

In South Australia, the Cheesefest & Ferment festival kicks off for two days on 26 & 27 October 2019. According to this article, Adelaide will host the country’s first raw milk cheese tasting, described as Australia’s biggest cheese festival. Festival director Kris Lloyd will curate a special selection of raw milk cheeses that will be available for tasting and purchase, including her famous raw milk Picasso. Only a small selection of raw milk cheese are available in Australia due to food safety regulations. Australia potentially has the most strict and draconian raw milk cheese regulations in the world. Since the installation of a raw milk cheese production system in 2015, only little more than a handful of producers have been able to comply. See these articles:

  1. What raw milk cheeses will we be able to buy in the future?

  2. Fair Regulations and Production Standards for Raw Milk

Buy tickets to the Rymill Park, Adelaide event here.

A list of Australian Raw Milk Cheese Producers:

  1. Bruny Island Cheese Co. (Hobart, TAS) - C2

  2. Hindmarsh Valley Dairy (Hindmarsh Valley, SA) - Emme

  3. Pecora Dairy (Robertson, NSW) - uncooked curd Yarrawa

  4. Prom Country Cheese (Moyarra, VIC) - uncooked curd available in 2020

  5. Section 28 Artisan Cheeses (Woodside, SA) - Monforte, Fontina & La Primavera

  6. Udder Delights (Hahndorf, SA) - King Saul

  7. Woodside Cheese Wrights (Woodside, SA) - The Kid, Greedy Goat

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