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US Food Safety Standards: The heated debate about pasteurization



Weighing Benefits and Risks of Raw Milk

   Local Economies, Small Farms and consumer choices

   Who is doing the research and who gets to decide?

References & Links

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Weighing Benefits and Risks of Raw Milk

What are the benefits?

     Raw milk cheese consumers see themselves as supporters of a different kind of agriculture and production ethic.  In purchasing small farms and raw milk, they are offering support to the kind of food system that can cultivate these healthy animals and nutritious products.  Small farms are able to manage their animals, environments, and ecosystems more safely and vigilantly, and in the process, can create products that are healthier and more ethically produced. 

     Sharply contrasting with the FDA’s perspective that raw milk cheese is too risky to be consumed, proponents of raw milk cheese, such as the American Cheese Society, see the product as a source of “good” microorganisms that actually improve the health of the consumer by adding healthy microorganisms and immunity to the consumer’s digestive system.  Supporters of unpasteurized milk believe firmly in its health benefits:  the healthy bacteria are actually thought to protect against the growth of undesirable organisms, thus protecting the milk from contamination when being processed for cheese.  Raw milk supporters also believe in the higher nutrient value found before the heating process, including important minerals, enzymes and antibodies that are completely destroyed in pasteurization (Lipinski, 2003).

     Raw milk cheese consumers see it as a traditional food, reflecting generations of cheesemakers from around the world.  They see the cheese as offering support to local economies, providing a tangible and rooted connection to the land, creating place-based nutrition and cultural expression, and improving biodiversity by promoting healthy, pasture-fed animals in a balanced ecosystem.  Indigenous microflora, biodiversity, and local flavors rooted in the unique characteristics of the land are highly important to raw milk cheese producers.  As Heather Paxon writes, “microbiopolitically, raw-milk cheese might be forwarded as biotechnology (derived from the scientific use of living organisms or parts of organisms) for regionalism or…for localism, the expression of a peoples connection to a piece of land” (Paxon, p. 26, 2008).

     In 2001, the Food and Drug Administration considered passing more stringent restrictions on raw milk cheese, concerned that the aging process was insufficient.  Raw milk proponents rallied together, calling the FDA’s action “an attack on one of society's greatest, most traditional foods—a cultural icon… like slashing an ancient painting by a master, or shredding the original score of a classic symphony” (American Society for Microbiology, 2001).  Proponents of raw milk cheese see it as much more than a foodsource, but more of a “quiet revolution against standardization of everything” (American Society for Microbiology, 2001).

What are the risks and doubts?

     Regulators claim that raw milk cheese has a higher risk for food outbreaks of Listeria, Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens than pasteurized milk. Yet, The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) “reported just 11 [outbreaks] from raw milk and 8 from cheeses made with raw milk during the 11-year period from 1990 to 2001. (Nestle, 2003).
     It must be taken into account that regular, pasteurized milk and cheese have their own associated outbreaks and health issues—about the same number as raw milk and cheese—although the actual amount of raw milk products in the market are significantly fewer. 
      These numbers are produced from a rational, quantitative and scientific process of analysis of the occurrence of food poisoning issues. Much of The Food and Drug Administration’s framework is rooted in a pasteurian culture focusing on getting rid of bacteria completely to eliminate risk.  Instead, these issues may be examined from different viewpoints. 
     There are many doubts associated with the FDA analysis and perceptions. If the consumers who had eaten raw milk products had not been raised on pasteurized or ultra-pasteurized milk, perhaps they would have not reacted to the raw milk because they would have had plenty of healthy bacteria to defend themselves.  Had their immune systems would not been adapted to being bacteria-free, perhaps instead they would have been stronger from the raw milk microflora in order to combat these toxins. Microflora are the healthy bacteria found in raw milk. Because pasteurization kills virtually all healthy bacteria, the stomach is not accustomed to consuming bacteria in milk, so it is better to drink smaller amounts initially.

      Studies have shown that consuming raw milk can raise specific levels of good bacteria that may work to fight against food poisoning.  Compounds such as lactoferrin, lysozyme, and lactoperoxidase are inhibitory to certain pathogens, serving as protection against bad bacteria, both in the stomach and in the cheesemaking process.  However these compounds get destroyed in the pasteurization process, eliminating the natural protective bacteria found in milk. Researchers are further investigating specific compounds within milk to fully understand these impacts on one’s immunity against sicknesses and food poisoning.  Click here for a more in-depth discussion of the contoversy amid researchers about nutritional degredation in pasteurization.

Re-framing the Issue

     Proponents of raw milk cheese claim that the focus of the criticism has fallen on the wrong area, targeting farmers whose processes are very safe.  While contamination of any cheese is entirely possible, studies show that contamination happens after processing, as a form of recontamination: it is the fault of the aging process, not the milk itself. Contamination stems “either from the aging environment, or introduction by humans of pathogens on their hands after the cheese is made…Where that becomes significant is irrelevant whether the cheese has been made with raw or pasteurized milk.” (MicrobeWorld, 2009)  The FDA’s warnings for pregnant, very young and old persons also caution against all soft cheeses, even those that have been pasteurized because these risks of recontamination are higher.  Raw milk cheeses, however, take on a different kind of meaning and are feared disproportionately despite the existence of these warnings.
      Check out the link on the right-hand side to learn more about cheeemaking and microbes.  A 2001 study of illnesses found by cheeses made from raw milk published: "it is clear that in the majority of instances factors other than the use of raw milk contributed to pathogens being present in cheese (Donnelly, 2001 as cited in Kindstedt, 2005).

      Cheese-making requires a culture to be added to milk.  There are many different kinds of cultures that are involved in the process, and each cheese has a unique composition of salt, nutrients, acidity, and differing moisture content.   These differing characteristics between cheeses mean that they have dramatically differing likelihoods of contamination of different pathogens. “Those inherent characteristics of cheese dictate a very low risk microbiologically, or a very high risk, depending on how cheeses are manufactured”  (MicrobeWorld, 2009). Raw milk cheese producers agree with the importance of risk assessment and protection of consumers, but believe that cheeses are capable of being regulated by means of careful inspection and should not be banned outright.  Legislation must target specific areas of the process, as explained by the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point guides (HACCP).  Other alternatives exist, such as thermization.  In this process, milk is treated at a much lower temperature for only 2 to 15 seconds, offering more safety than no pasteurization at all. In these ways, safety legislation can examine different types of cheeses in different forms, rather than utilizing a one-size-fits-all approach and completely prohibiting specific areas of the market.

Save your dairy

A plea from a small dairy in Arizona, which, like many small farms, advocates for raw milk rather than pasteurization.  Click photo for a link to

Raw Cheese

Raw milk cheeses: a variety of cheeses, each made with different cultures, acidities and processes.  All represent an abundance of different flavors, and different practices perfected through the years.


 Cheese and Microbes - MWV28 from microbeworld on Vimeo.


Pasteurization requires heat--a factor that concerns raw milk cheese defenders, who believe that the process deteriorates the quality of the product and the nutrients, including healthy bacteria.

Last updated:  5/06/10


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