Survival of the Rawest
Written onDecember 01 , 2007
Sometimes the food world offers bona fide drama made for “reality” TV. Survival of the Rawest is the working title for my imagined submission to the networks. This virtual “hit-show” is actually in production right now on small farms in the Northeast. And the subject is the clash of live foods with dead ones.
By live foods I mean unprocessed, organic, freshly-picked fruit and vegetables, as well as raw milk and cheeses made with unpasteurized milk. Raw milk comes straight from cows, goats, and sheep and is not subject to pasteurization (heating to remove bacteria); it therefore retains a lot of the “good” bacteria lost in the pasteurization process—bacteria that many people believe brings good health. Among dead foods, I include pasteurized milk and cheese made with such milk. As a way to sell milk in huge volumes under the banner of food safety, pasteurizers kill a living food in large quantities. Some consumers only want to buy pasteurized milk, and that is their choice. Although I recognize the possibility of contamination in raw milk, many folks, like me, believe there are fewer risks associated with raw milk if gotten from conscientious, small-scale farmers. The Campaign for Real Milk articulates the reasoning behind this point of view; check out www.realmilk.com.
The composers of governmental regulations are busy writing the theme song to this “raw” battle between live and dead foods. In the hot seat are raw milk cheeses, which are one of the last remaining examples of genuine food in this world. According to reports, the food industry and government agencies in the U.S. and Europe are pushing for “risk profiling” of raw cheeses to eliminate potential trouble-makers. A risk profile provides a scientific methodology to assess food hazards. It enables a rational management of risk and is used to protect public health. Such profiles are regularly made for poultry, red meat, seafood, ice cream, eggs, rice, and fresh cheese. But using these risk profiles on raw milk cheeses could lead to demands for their elimination. Because of the dangers inherent in industrial agriculture, there is pressure to make pasteurization the norm, even in non-industrial agriculture. Consider what’s happening to our nuts: in September 2007, the Almond Board of California approved mass pasteurization of nearly a billion raw almonds. If they can mess with our nuts, what’s next?
As the march towards sterilization intensifies, the work of Peter Dixon of Westminster is becoming increasingly vital. Dixon, who has worked as a local, national and international dairy foods consultant and is currently making cheese at Consider Bardwell Farm in West Pawlett, recently kicked off an important pilot experiment called “The Farmstead Cheese Risk Reduction Project.” Early in 2007, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northeast SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education division), Dixon offered free informational seminars to farmstead and artisanal cheese makers about a food safety system originally developed by the Pillsbury Company and the U.S. Army. The system, called HACCP (“Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points”) helped NASA assure safe-to-eat meals for astronauts in outer space in the 1970s. This simple system identifies and prevents hazards that could cause food-borne diseases. Teaching it to small-scale cheese makers, many of whom use raw milk, means the producers can prevent problems long before they occur and enable the safe inclusion of the kind of “good” bacteria beneficial to traditional cheesemaking—and to our health.
Dixon’s pilot project entered its second phase in the summer of 2007. A group of 22 licensed cheesemakers from New England and New York began to develop HACCP plans for their own cheese making operations under Dixon’s guidance. The project intends to incorporate HACCP protocols on these 22 farmsteads and help the participants advertise the fact that they use this system; they will form a cheesemakers’ association which will present the cheese risk reduction and monitoring program as having value in the marketplace. Finally, the core 22 cheesemakers will administer the program they developed and provide technical assistance to fellow members.
Dixon’s project hopes to improve milk quality and overall sanitation on farmsteads and in cheesemaking facilities so that cheese makers can prove they’re above board. I believe the HACCP program will help head off the government’s potential argument that certain raw milk cheese makers should be shut down. If the agencies took the ultimate step and prohibited the use of any raw milk to make cheese, many farmstead operations would have to close, as regulations would force farmstead cheesemakers to outfit themselves with sophisticated, industrial-scale equipment and facilities that only large-scale producers can afford.
I love raw milk cheeses because I consider them to be genuine foods made by the distinct hand of the maker. Raw milk cheeses generally have fuller “taste profiles” and pay homage to a culture that is eager to express its roots. Now that I’m getting to know Vermont as a promised land of artisanal cheese, I’m hoping that frustration with the food-borne illnesses and toxic outbreaks that occur within our mega-industrial food system doesn’t result in the disappearance of raw milk cheeses made by small-scale producers.