Dick Groves
Editor, Cheese Reporter

 

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FDA Needs To Make A Decision On Raw Milk Cheese

It’s been 16 years since attorney Marsha Echols reported at the American Cheese Society’s annual conference in Shelburne, VT, that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was reviewing its policy that allows the use of raw milk in cheesemaking.

Today, FDA is still reviewing that policy. Meanwhile, the cheese industry sits and waits, knowing that the agency will do something, eventually, but knowing little else.

Enough already with the uncertainty. It’s time for FDA to do something about its policy of allowing the use of raw (unpasteurized) milk in the production of certain cheeses provided they have been aged for at least 60 days.

At that 1999 ACS meeting, Echols quoted two letters from F. Edward Scarbrough, Ph.D., then the US manager to Codex. It was the second letter that included the statement, from FDA, that the agency was reviewing its policy regarding raw milk cheese.

Since then, there’s been a lot of talk from FDA but not a whole lot of action. Indeed, the agency hasn’t really done anything regarding its raw milk cheese policy, although it does mention that policy from time to time.

For example, back in 2003, FDA said that evaluating the science of raw milk cheeses (60-day aging) was a “B” list priority, meaning it was an issue the agency planned to make progress on, but which it may not complete before the end of fiscal year 2003.

A year later, a “B” list priority was to complete, during fiscal year 2004, the evaluation of the science and safety of raw milk cheese. And for fiscal year 2005, completing the evaluation of the science of raw milk cheeses had moved up to an “A” list priority (FDA’s goal was to complete at least 90 percent of its “A” list items by the end of that fiscal year).

Near the end of fiscal 2005, FDA moved its evaluation of the science of raw milk cheeses from its “A” list to its “B” list, meaning that the agency would continue to work on the goal as time permitted, but did not expect final action in fiscal 2005.

One of the few things that’s happened since fiscal 2005 is that FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) no longer publishes a list of its priorities.
Since fiscal 2005, there have been at least a couple of hints that FDA might be getting close to doing something regarding its raw milk cheese policy.

For example, in January of 2010, CFSAN director Stephen Sundlof stated, at IDFA’s Dairy Forum, that the 60-day aging period “is not effective in reducing pathogens in raw milk cheeses.”

Sundlof mentioned a risk profile that was being conducted that’s looking at what other potential risk-management options might be available and would be more effective than the 60-day aging process for certain cheeses. And he said that risk profile was expected to be completed by the end of that year (2010).

Today, FDA continues the process of completing its work on that raw milk cheese risk profile. Once that draft is released, public comments will be accepted and the risk profile will be finalized.

It doesn’t appear that FDA will consider any changes to its raw milk cheese regulations until that risk profile is finalized.

Meanwhile, other countries continue to march forward when it comes to regulating raw milk cheese. For example, at the turn of the century (several months after Scarbrough’s letter to Marsha Echols), Australia still required that all cheeses sold in that country be made from milk which had been pasteurized or had a similar heat treatment.

But Australia has moved forward since then. In late 2002, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) approved an exemption to the heat treatment requirement for milk used to make very hard grating cheeses, which meant that the importation of raw milk very hard grating cheeses could continue and that the Food Standards Code would now permit the sale of those cheeses if produced domestically.

In 2005, Australia amended its Food Standards Code to permit the sale of Roquefort, a raw sheep’s milk cheese. An assessment by FSANZ concluded that the sale of Roquefort cheese “would pose a low risk to the public health and safety of Australian consumers.”

Since 2005, FSANZ has approved a proposal recommending permission be given for the sale in Australia of raw milk hard to very hard cooked curd cheeses. And still more recently, the FSANZ board approved further changes that allow for the production and importation of a greater range of raw milk cheeses (for Australia) where defined safety outcomes can be met.

The US is currently negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement with, among others, Australia and New Zealand (which, in late 2012, gave approval to its first registered producer of raw milk cheeses).

The US is also currently negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union, where raw milk cheeses have been produced and widely accepted for centuries.
What these trade agreements will mean is that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for FDA to completely ban raw milk cheeses.

After more than a decade and a half of reviewing and researching, FDA needs to propose changes to its raw milk cheese regulations. The science, conducted worldwide, doesn’t support a ban, but it also doesn’t support the 60-day aging rule by itself. Changes need to be proposed, then implemented.

The cheese industry has waited long enough. It’s time for FDA to move ahead on changing its raw milk cheese regulations. DG


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