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

Do you love raw milk cheese?

Think Parmigiano Reggiano, Gruyere and Comte. Swiss-made Tete de Moine and Marcel Petite French Comte were for sale for $65/kg+ in Melbourne for many years. It was considered perfectly safe for us to eat - produced under European regulations - for years. It seems food authorities have now decided to change that… 

According to Australian raw milk cheese advocate Will Studd, new regulation is coming into effect in Australia this month. He said that Australian food authorities have announced strict new import controls on all cheese made from unpasteurised milk. The only one that seems to have been 'officially' recognised as permitted for sale, is Roquefort.

 

Home-grown raw milk cheese

Will Studd has been a passionate advocate for over two decades and has made many attempts to entice authorities to allow a homegrown raw milk cheese industry. In 2015, the Australian government decided to regulate the industry, and now about a handful of producers are operating in this country. When comparing the requirements for Australia's raw milk cheese production, to those of countries like Switzerland, France and North America, it becomes glaringly obvious why ours are over the top. Evidence is mounting and showing that some requirements, like strict coliforms testing, have little to do with food safety. The testing requirement is making it harder for cheesemakers to produce the cheese consumers want to buy, and it is harming small businesses. The so-called 'safety criteria' that limit the production of raw milk cheese, doesn't have a public health benefit according to some North American cheesemakers, lawmakers and scientists. 

However, it seems some government agencies are still continuing to tweak regulation to exclude an increasing number of cheeses made with raw milk from ever reaching the consumer.

This at a time when the Australian dairy industry desperately needs to be able to follow in the footsteps of overseas raw dairy industries, and diversify with high-value products, like raw milk cheese and raw drinking milk.  

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The Value of Traditional Raw Milk Cheese

Friend or foe? Bacteriological correctness

Image: these French raw milk cheeses were served at ARMM's Panel Discussion event a few years ago. They are for sale at many specialty cheese stores around Australia and are very popular.

Also keep in mind that a $68,000 grant was recently given to four South Australian cheesemakers to help them "crack the luxury food market overseas", and export their raw milk cheese. We can't keep exporting our most valuable products and expect Australians to accept this as normal. This is a dysfunctional food system. Australians should be able to buy, consume and enjoy locally produced food. Food regulators have made the regulations for the production of raw milk cheese too difficult, cutting many dairy farmers off from an opportunity to diversify, and making it impossible for many Australian consumers to purchase the end product at a price such as $200/kg.

When will FSANZ (Food Safety Australian New Zealand) and decision makers enable us to enjoy unprocessed dairy products, of our choice, in a local food environment? Many are deeply disappointed by this decision. Many raw milk supporters cannot consume pasteurised dairy because we get painful ear infections, stomach cramps, wind, bloating, allergies or asthma flare-ups. Some of us even risk an anaphylactic shock or death if we eat pasteurised dairy. Many of us cannot afford to buy the locally produced raw milk cheese from cheesemakers such as Hindmarsh Valley Dairy, Udder Delights, Woodside Cheese Wrights, Pecora Dairy and Bruny Island Cheese Co. when the cheese have to sell for around $200/kg to make it viable for the producers.  

 

Tightening the regulations on imported raw milk cheese into Australia

The Oldways Cheese Coalition is an international effort of cheesemakers, retailers and enthusiasts fighting for their right to enjoy raw milk and other traditional cheeses. Yesterday they asked Advisory Committee member Will Studd to explain the current situation

“The Australian food authorities have recently announced strict new import controls on all cheese made from unpasteurised milk.

From August, the only imported cheese made from raw milk ‘officially’ recognised as permitted for sale will be Roquefort. This cheese was granted a special government exemption in 2005 after a legal battle and the famous burial which resulted in a 171-page government report (A499) outlining why Roquefort was safe for Australian consumption.

The new rules are very confusing for anyone familiar with the international definition of raw milk cheese.  

Under Food Standards Australia - New Zealand (FSANZ) production standards for hard cooked cheese made from unpasteurised milk are considered 'pasteurised’ provided:

i.  the curd is heated to a temperature of no less than 48°C; and

ii.  the cheese or cheese product has a moisture content of less than 39%, after being stored at a temperature of no less than 10°C for a period of no less than 120 days from the date of processing.

The process and definition conveniently avoid an embarrassing ban on the import and sale of European benchmarks such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Gruyere AOP, and Comte. But effectively eliminates the possibility for softer and younger cheeses to be imported to Australia and New Zealand.

With the exception of Roquefort all other types of imported raw milk cheese will only be permitted for sale in the future if accompanied by recognised government to government certification showing they have been produced in line with the Australian production standards for unpasteurised milk cheese. Those were announced in 2016, but they have proved to be so strict and impractical, that few local producers have managed to meet all the requirements.

In signs of a further tightening of regulations, the FSANZ has also requested the withdrawal of applications (A531) made over a decade ago to review a ban on the sale of English farmhouse raw milk cheddar.”

In an Instagram post earlier today, Will Studd confirmed: 

"New Australian import controls mean that (with sadness) that the exception of Roquefort,  all other types of imported raw milk cheese will only be permitted for sale in the future if accompanied by recognised government to government certification showing they have been produced in line with the Australian production standards for unpasteurised milk cheese.
Those were announced in 2016, but they have proved to be so strict and impractical, that few local producers have managed to meet all the requirements." 

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What international raw milk cheese producer, in his right mind, is going to attempt to produce raw milk cheese for export to Australia under these "strict and impractical" requirements? It is not clear what lead to this decision. It is also not clear why authorities are doing this, but the end result is the elimination of competition for big business. 


Edit: more on the changes made to imported raw cheese may be found on this agriculture.gov.au website.


 

Roquefort's history in Australia and Will Studd's famous cheese burial

In January 2002 Will challenged minor changes to Australian food regulations relating to raw milk cheese by importing 80 kilograms of Roquefort. The Food Inspection Program refused to test the cheese for compliance, and after much drama it was ordered to be destroyed on 18 September 2003. In the video below, Will Studd is seen having the famous burial for the Roquefort that was ordered to be destroyed after being impounded for almost two years. 

According to Will, the Roquefort cheese made from ewes' milk in France was granted a special government exemption in 2005 after a legal battle and the famous burial, which resulted in a 171-page government report (A499) outlining why Roquefort was safe for Australian consumption. According to this article written on 24 September 2005, Parliamentary Secretary for Health Christopher Pyne announced that the food standards code had been amended to allow roquefort to be sold in Australia. 

According to the transcript Christopher said: "It's a sheep milk and it's not pasteurised and it's not heated, so it's very unique style of cheese. And in 1994, the AQIS, the Australian Government Quarantine Service decided it was dangerous, but after many years of investigation, FSANZ has decided under the right circumstances and with the right warnings to consumers, that Australians can make their own decisions about what cheeses they eat. They're grown up enough to determine the risks they like to take and that we don't believe it is dangerous to Australian consumers."

Reporter Nance Haxton asked him: "So what's changed? Why wasn't it safe before and why is it safe now?" 

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Christopher Payne replied: "Well before 1994, FSANZ had never done an investigation into how the cheese was put together, the circumstances, the production of it. In that intervening time that has gone on, and it's been determined that the way the French make their cheese, of course, after many hundreds of years of making this cheese, is safe and good for consumers..." 

In response Will said: "Well, I'm delighted about the lifting of the ban, because the lifting of the ban means not only that we can actually sell Roquefort again in Australia for the first time in 10 years, but it's set a very important precedent for the production of local raw milk cheeses as well."

"I'm delighted. The customers are screaming for it. Raw-milk cheeses … ensure that small artisan and farmhouse cheese-makers can survive against dull, boring industrial cheese," said Will.

Video: Australian customs order Will to bury his Roquefort.

Will Studd tells the story about the origins of Roquefort cheese and the legalities in Australia

Audio: Veins Interview with Will Studd, 27 Oct 2018, streamed from source

 

Calls to fix the Australian Dairy Industry 

Lately there has been many calls for transformation in the dairy industry, while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's leadership is under question. 

There is now an awareness and understanding that levelling the playing field would be good for everyone. It is time for those who have been disenfranchised, not given the same opportunities as the privileged ones, to get their share. It is up to each individual to create food economies that work for everyone. This is not about playing the same old game and being one of the winners. This is about acknowledging that the game has been rigged and creating an entirely new one. This is what a dairy farmer, two politicians and a comedian had to say:

Image: this Swiss cheese made from raw milk, aged for 5 months with a humidity of 36%, has been for sale in some Woolworths stores, that cater for specialty foods, for many years. It sells for under $10.00 for 195g and is very popular. Will the new changes to the regulation render this cheese 'unsafe' for human consumption in Australia, because FSANZ didn't put its stamp of approval on it with the (less than) <10 cfu/ml coliforms requirement? Even <100 cfu/ml is too prohibitive as cheesemaker Biddy Fraser-Davis and the previous New Zealand system for the production for raw milk cheese so eloquently showed.

 

Overseas raw milk cheese, and raw drinking milk, continues to win national and international awards. The raw cheese from Fen Farm Dairy was served at Prince Harry’s wedding breakfast earlier this year, and this year, they have again been nominated for a significant award:

Also see the video in the article below. The interview shows the rural prosperity that can be had when real value is involved, and also how food regulators, not pathogens, can be the biggest risk for businesses who want to produce food that is in demand with the community.

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Australia is a country where people can get caught up in a lot of details, fail at identifying real problems, miss a few simple truths, and then over-regulate to create safety.