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Cheese Lovers Poke Holes in Possible Rules on Aged Products

Thousands oppose the FDA's tentative steps to study whether raw milk foods pose hazards. They say that such steps are overly intrusive and that pasteurization would ruin flavors.

October 31, 2000|MARLENE CIMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Petitions by the boxful are stacking up in cheese specialty stores across the nation. And people are mad.

"This is just one more instance of the government running our lives!" writes one angry cheese lover from Lexington, Ky. A man from Applegate, Ore., writes: "More Americans have succumbed to contaminated fast-food hamburgers than have fallen ill from Pecorino on pasta."

And, from a Minneapolis writer: "Grrrrrr. . . . Isn't it time the government acted to ban some stuff that actually causes people harm? Strip mining and handguns come to mind."

They are among thousands who have reacted to what they see as an undeserved attack on one of the world's most treasured cultural food icons--aged cheeses, those aromatic, flavorful creations made from raw milk.

The object of their ire is the Food and Drug Administration, which is taking the first tentative steps to study the possible health hazards of raw milk cheeses, raising the real possibility of regulatory action.

The prospect has ignited a firestorm among cheese aficionados who see tampering with these cheeses as akin to slashing a painting by an Old Master or burning the original score of a classic symphony. And, amid a presidential debate on the appropriate role for the federal government, the controversy is giving energy to those who think that Washington is overly intrusive.

"The government is trying to turn us into a nation of Velveeta eaters," said K. Dun Gifford, who heads Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, a Boston-based group that seeks to preserve traditional foods. "It's government regulation run amok."

The U.S. government has long required fresh cheeses to be made from pasteurized milk. But until now there were no limits on the sale of aged cheeses made from raw, unpasteurized milk because it was assumed that the aging process would kill harmful bacteria.

Now, new studies have prompted an FDA review of whether the minimum 60-day aging period is long enough to destroy dangerous organisms and it is studying possible regulation--pasteurization or an outright ban being among the agency's most drastic options.

Pasteurized Gruyere, Parmigiana, Roquefort or Vermont Shepherd? The idea sends a collective shudder through cheese lovers everywhere.

To bite into a perfectly aged raw milk cheese "brings you a sense of what winemakers call terroir, which means a 'sense of place,' of the land," said Ruth Flore, a past president of the American Cheese Society. "If you were forced to pasteurize, you're going to lose that flavor that tells you where the cheese comes from."

Ari Weinzweig, owner of the food specialty store Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Mich., said that consumers deserve the right to make their own decisions about whether eating these cheeses is worth the risk without "having to break the law or fly to Europe."

So widespread is opposition to the FDA intrusion that opponents have formed their own organization. The Cheese of Choice Coalition, organized by Oldways and the American Cheese Society, has a heavyweight cast of respected food shops and organizations both here and abroad. These include Whole Foods Markets, which owns Bread and Circus and Fresh Fields food stores; Fairway Market in New York City and its cheese manager, Steve Jenkins, author of the book "The Cheese Primer"; the London-based Neal's Yard Dairy, a world-famous exporter of fine cheeses; the Parmigiana Reggiano Consortium, based in Parma, Italy, which exports all Parmigiana Reggiano to the United States; David Levine, general manager of the Dean & DeLuca flagship store in New York City; and Corby Kummer, renowned food columnist for The Atlantic magazine.

FDA officials insist that they are not trying to take away anyone's favorite cheeses and that the agency is only trying to be vigilant during an era of escalating anxiety about food safety. In recent years, with the emergence of newly identified bacteria, such as E. coli 0157:H7, food-borne outbreaks have gone from merely sickening people to killing them.

"Our business is not to limit consumer choice [but] to protect the public health," said Jack Mowbray, a policy analyst in the FDA's division of food safety. "We would rather prevent an outbreak from occurring than respond to one after the fact."

Since 1949, the government has forbidden the sale of hard cheeses made from raw milk unless they have been aged for at least 60 days at 35 degrees Fahrenheit. But recently the FDA began to worry about whether the regulation deserved another look.

The agency became concerned after learning about some studies, among them 1996 research conducted at South Dakota State University that showed E. coli 0157:H7 could survive the 60-day aging period in cheddar cheese and several European studies showing similar results with two other bacteria, salmonella and listeria.

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