The American Cheese Society has posted their formal response to the FDA’S draft report on Listeria risk in soft-ripened cheeses. Important reading, and hopefully the FDA will take it seriously (although I am admittedly pessimistic, given their track record):
American Cheese Society Comments in Response to: Joint FDA/Health Canada Quantitative Assessment of the Risk of Listeriosis from Soft-Ripened Cheese Consumption in the United States and Canada: Draft Report
We are concerned that the conclusions and take-away messages from the risk assessment may be based on an incomplete data set and thus may not be wholly accurate. First, the report suggests to consumers and regulators that soft-ripened cheeses carry a high risk of contamination with Listeria monocytogenes; when in fact, the evidence and history suggest that the risks are low from such cheeses made in compliance with current regulations. Second, as reflected in media coverage, the report suggests that soft-ripened cheeses made from unpasteurized milk are significantly more risky than those made from pasteurized milk; when in fact, the analysis indicates that at least one strategy considered in the report can reduce risk in raw milk products below that of pasteurized products. Many other strategies remain unexplored.
We are concerned that the net impact of these misrepresentations may lead to reduced sales of safe cheese products and increased regulatory efforts beyond those justified by empirical evidence. This is of particular concern as this approach may set precedent for future risk assessments. We offer two sets of reflections on the analysis, separating analytical concerns and suggestions from issues reflected in the presentation of conclusions.
One interesting section discusses the recent changes to Quebec’s laws regarding raw-milk cheeses: rather than setting a required minimum aging time and calling it a day, they have followed France’s lead, and focus on rigorous handling and processing requirements to ensure safety:
In Canada, as of September 2009, the province of Québec allows the manufacture and sale of soft and semi-soft cheeses made from raw milk that have not been aged for 60 days if the manufacturer meets requirements prescribed in the provincial regulation respecting food. A thorough description of the interventions set forth in this regulation warrants investigation in the current assessment. For example, a description of how effective or ineffective this program has been is warranted. After three years of implementation, this real world data on the efficacy of regulation is critical to inform the present assessment. One could assume Health Canada’s interest in conducting the present assessment is based on information gleaned from the efficacy of the intra-provincial regulation to inform future inter-provincial regulations.
Read the full report here (PDF).
Short answer: probably not. The actual risks from raw milk cheeses are quite low, and the 60-day law actually increases the risk, when it comes to soft-ripened cheeses like Camembert, because these cheeses tend to become higher risk the longer they age: when they’re relatively young, the pH of the cheeses works to keep the more dangerous pathogens at bay. In France, where raw milk cheeses are eaten when young, incidences of listeria are no greater than in the US.
But perhaps the the most frustrating part of the FDA’s approach to the regulation of the cheese is that these reports tend not to place the risks associated with cheese in context with the risks from all food classes. Raw milk cheese looks risky on it’s own, sure, but if you compare food poisoning and contamination risks from, say, deli meats, or poultry, or seafood, or leafy greens, or even pasteurized soft cheeses, raw milk cheese holds its own quite well, actually. The difference is that when, say, Cargill recalls 36 million pounds of ground turkey and kills 1 person, sickening many more, we blame the processor, not the ground turkey. if a similar case happens with a raw milk cheese, the cheese becomes the culprit, not the handler or maker. It’s the difference between “CARGILL kills 1, recalls ground turkey”, vs “RAW MILK CHEESE kills 1, 10,0000 lbs of RAW MILK CHEESE recalled”.
And all this comes even as the government (granted, the USDA rather than the FDA) is doing things like shortening inspection times for poultry processing facilities, making it more likely that bad chicken will sneak onto your plate. And when it does, we’ll blame the process, not the bird, as we should.
In any case, Take Apart has an interesting look at the new FDA Risk Assessment for Listeria:
Cheese lovers, brace yourselves: The U.S. Food & Drug Administration may be trying to get between you and your beloved camembert. Why? Well, if that gooey, delicious mound of bliss you just slathered on a piece of warm, crusty bread happened to get its start in a batch of raw milk, your risk of listeriosis could be up to 160 times higher than if it was made from pasteurized milk.
That’s according to a risk assessment done by the FDA and their counterparts in Canada. But the draft report—open for comments until April 29—has plenty in the cheese industry worried.
“In the U.S., the FDA estimates that there is one case of listeriosis linked to raw-milk cheese for every 55 million servings eaten. For pasteurized soft cheese, that ratio is one listeriosis case for every 8.64 billion servings,” writes James Andrews for Food Safety News.
The drive behind the risk assessment may be the Food Safety Modernization Act, which gave the FDA new authority to regulate foods for safety. But according to a report issued in March by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, pound-for-pound, dairy is among the safest foods to eat.
“When adjusted for consumption, it is seafood that presents the greatest risk of illness, causing almost 20 times as much disease as fruit and dairy,” according to a statement put out by the CSPI. But the group adds that when you include raw-milk cheese in the conversation, it’s a different story.
“Illnesses related to dairy actually reached their highest point in 2010, the last year of the study period. CSPI says the increased availability of raw, unpasteurized milk and cheese may account for this; these products are inherently hazardous and should not be consumed at all.”
It’s worth noting, however, that the spike in illness in the CSPI report was caused by the pathogen Campylobacter in pasteurized milk—not raw milk cheeses.
Read the full story.
(Photo ©2013 Take Part)
The Guardian has an interesting piece on Umami, the “5th Taste”, which is vital to the flavor profile of many cheeses, most famously Parmigiano Reggiano:
Our predilection for umami – the only recently recognised (by western scientists) “fifth taste”, after salt, sweet, sour and bitter - is a fascinating piece in the jigsaw of our gastronomic evolution. Since studies confirmed just a few years ago that our mouths contain taste receptors for this moreish savoury taste (the other four “basic tastes” had been widely accepted for, ooh, a few thousand years), so much in the history of recipes suddenly makes sense. Umami is why the Romans loved liquamen, the fermented anchovy sauce that they sloshed as liberally as we do ketchup today. It is key to the bone-warming joy of gravy made from good stock, meat juices and caramelised meat and veg. It is why Marmite is my mate.
Escoffier, the legendary 19th-century French chef who invented veal stock, felt sure that a savoury fifth taste was the secret of his success, but everyone was too busy gorging on his food to take much notice of his theories. Fast forward to the 21st century and many cooks are delighted to finally see proof of what they had instinctively known. Massimo Bottura, whose restaurant in Modena is ranked fifth best in the world, served the first incarnation of his dish five ages of parmigiano reggiano in different textures and temperatures in 1995. More recently, however, Bottura says that the discovery that parmesan is probably the most umami ingredient in western cookery has enhanced his appreciation and understanding of the dish. “Five textures, five temperatures and five levels of umami,” is how he now views it.
Read the full article.
(Photo ©2013 guardian.co.uk)
Via Planet Earth Online, news that wild goat populations could move into previously inhospitable areas as northern latitudes warm due to anthropogenic climate change:
Global warming could cause goat populations to rocket
20 March 2013, by Harriet Jarlett
Higher temperatures caused by global warming could help goat populations to thrive, say scientists.
A new study, published in Oikos, shows that two major factors are important for goats survival – daylight hours and temperature – which get worse the further north you are.
‘The further north they go, the more the goats are trapped by a combination of the costs of thermoregulation and declining vegetation quality, both of which require them to spend more time feeding. But winter day lengths get shorter as you go further north. There comes a point where those two opposing forces crash together and they run out of time. That’s the point north of which goats can’t live,’ explains Dunbar.
But as the climate changes – bringing warmer temperatures – goats need less food and less time foraging to survive. ‘As the climate warms, goats will be able to live further north. It’s about one degree latitude further north for every one degree warmer in mean annual temperature. Although here in the UK this may be offset by changes in the Gulf stream and other climate factors,’ says Dunbar.
High latitude goat populations, like the one the team studied on the Isle of Rum, were teetering on the balance of maintaining their numbers. ‘Rum is very close to the northern limit for goats in Britain so it’s no surprise that they’re only just about able to hold their own. In better years the population builds a bit and then in a bad year it falls, mainly thanks to low fertility and high kid mortality. The population seemed to be oscillating comfortably around a decent mean for many decades,’ Dunbar says.
Recently though, many of these northerly populations have thrived and begun to show signs of increasing. Dunbar thinks this is an effect of the increase in temperature as a result of climate warming.
Read the full post.
(Photo © Wikipedia/Creative Commons - 2004 Dirk Beyer)
Edible Boston has an interesting profile of Rachel Dutton, Ben Wolfe and Julie Button and their ongoing quest to understand the microscopic ecosystems of cheese rinds (they’ve also now expanded their research into fermented, cured and otherwise preserved aged foods — they’ve even worked with David Chang to identify the microbial profiles of his kimchi’s). In the process, they have come to some pretty interesting (and potentially controversial) discoveries, regarding the notion of Terroir:
…according to the data that Dutton and her colleagues have generated—the typical aged cheese is home to anywhere from 5 to 20 unique microbes. If they are not put there deliberately by the cheesemaker, where do they come from? And—more importantly—what are they up to? These are exactly the sort of questions that the Dutton lab is attempting to elucidate.
With a comprehensive bank of cheese microorganisms on hand, the work of piecing apart the interactions among each is now possible. It’s time-consuming, given the numbers involved, but not complicated: you just mix and match the organisms in all possible combinations on an agar plate, and then observe what happens over time. (The bulk of the interactions work falls on the shoulders of Julie Button.) This fungus and that bacterium together produce a certain rosy-hued pigment, these two bacteria with the unmistakeable aroma of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. Each data point can then be used to explain the appearance of these same phenomena out in the “real world” on the cheeses themselves.
One of first key discoveries the lab made was the fact that cheeses of the same style, no matter the origin, were remarkably similar to one another in terms of their microbiology. Not just similar, but nearly identical in many cases, with the same sets of species on each. “We thought maybe we would find completely different things in French cheeses than we did in the US cheeses,” Dutton told me. “Instead, what we are finding is that the way you make a cheese creates a specific environment, and then you get the microbes that are associated with that type of environment.”
These results upend the notion of terroir, the belief that the essential character of certain foods derives from their place of origin. The term was first used by the French to explain why grapes grown in a particular climate and soil type produce wines that taste a certain way, while the same vines transplanted to another region can yield a very different product.
The idea of terroir has long applied to cheesemaking as well. The notion that the character of a cheese is tied directly to the unique microbial makeup of the cave in which it is ripened is an old one. You might make a similar cheese elsewhere, but—lacking the precise mixture of microbes found only in that one cave—it’ll never be quite the same. Dutton’s results suggest otherwise.
The microbes found in cheese appear to be ubiquitous, rather than local. What’s important—at least as regards cheeses that derive much of their flavor from rind microbes—is not so much where you make the cheese, but rather how you make it. If you look closely you’ll find the same set of organisms on a blue cheese from England (Stichelton, for example) as on a blue from Vermont (like Jasper Hill’s Bailey Hazen Blue). As postdoc Ben Wolfe is fond of saying, “If you build it, they will come.”
Dutton and her colleagues admit that cheese terroir might still exist at the level of the individual strain rather than that of species or genus, as had been previously assumed.
But if so, that fact might present new commercial opportunities for United States cheesemakers. Almost to a one—largely for historical reasons—American cheeses are made using cultures isolated from and produced in Europe. If Dutton and her team identify strains of bacteria or fungi that are unique to North America, these could potentially serve as stock for locally produced cultures, freeing the American cheesemaking industry from its present reliance on European ones.
read the full article here.
(Photos ©2013 Edible Boston)
This Tuesday, The American Cheese Society will be offering a Webinar meeting with representatives of the FDA to discuss their risk assessments regarding Listeria in soft-ripened cheeses. Wherever you fall on the raw vs. pasteurized debate, it could be interesting to hear first-hand the FDA perspective:
Tuesday, March 12
9:30 AM – 11:00 AM Mountain Time
Free & Available Only to ACS Members
The Joint FDA / Health Canada Quantitative Assessment of the Risk of Listeriosis from Soft-Ripened Cheese Consumption in the United States and Canada: Draft Report was recently published and opened for public comment. Hear directly from a member of FDA’s Risk Assessment Team about the research, processes, mathematical models, and extrapolations used in creating the risk assessment. You’ll learn about the key findings of the risk assessment and next steps for finalizing it. A question and answer session will follow the presentation. Register today!
Dr. Sherri Dennis, Acting Director for CFSAN’s Division of Risk Assessment, in the Office of Analytics and Outreach, at FDA
Dr. Regis Pouillot, ORISE Fellow at FDA
The New Haven Register has an in-depth profile of Sister Noelle, the legendary “Cheese Nun” who is both a PhD Microbiologist and nun at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT:
‘Cheese Nun’ leads abbey in production of the traditional, gourmet food
Sister Noella, who received her Ph.D. in microbiology from the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Connecticut, spent four years in France in the 1990s—first on a Fulbright Scholarship and then a three-year fellowship from the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique—collecting native strains of the yeast-like fungus Geotrichum candidum from cheese caves in France to assess its biochemical and genetic diversity.
Sister Noella’s work has been wonderful for artisanal cheese makers, helping to prove that the fungi that grow on the surfaces of raw milk cheeses help to protect against disease-causing pathogens and contribute to a wonderful diversity of flavors. She became a well-known advocate for the preservation of tradition and biodiversity in cheese making.
For her efforts, Sister Noella was inducted into the Grand Ordre Des Gourmandins and Gourmandines des Fromages d’Auvergne in 2002; was honored in 2003 by the French food industry with its first French Food Spirit Award for promoting an understanding of French cheeses and helping to preserve traditional ways of making them; and received the Grand Prix de la Science de l’Alimentation from the International Academy of Gastronomy in 2005. She has advised the U.S. cheese industry and has been a speaker and judge at competitions.
Now she will describe her experiences in a talk, “Growing Old Tastefully — A Trip to the Cheese Caves of France,” for the Women’s Forum of Litchfield at 2:30 p.m. March 7at the Litchfield Community Center, 421 Bantam Road (Route 202).
“There is a microbial universe present on the rind of fungal-ripened cheese,” she wrote. “Through empirical observation cheese makers for centuries used techniques that optimized the selection of microorganisms that produced the best cheese. My Fulbright fellowship allowed me to investigate the genetic and biochemical biodiversity of fungi on cheeses ripened in traditional caves.”
Check out the full story, and if you’re near Litchfield, CT, don’t miss her talk on March 7th.
And if you’re interested in learning more about Sister Noella, check out the 2002 PBS documentary “The Cheese Nun”. Bonus: one of the scenes was filmed at the 2001 American Cheese Society conference, which seemed to be taking place in a single conference room with just a couple hundred people present, compared to the more recent conferences, which take over entire convention facilities and feature 7000+ cheeses in competition!
(Photos ©2013 New Haven Register)
Via Grub Street, on Jimmy Kimmel Elon Musk recounted sending a wheel of Gruyere into space. But he also says he didn’t taste it afterwards?? C’mon guys, put it on the line for science (and turophilia)! I’m sure the taste wasn’t affected, but…how can we be certain? Space Affinage might be the next frontier…
The inventor of SpaceX and co-founder of Tesla Motors and PayPal stopped by Jimmy Kimmel Live last night and chatted about how he and his Dragon spacecraft crew sent a wheel of cheese to space as a test. It was the largest wheel of Gruyère cheese he could find at a Beverley Hills cheese shop. And no, he didn’t taste-test it when it came back. So much for a $100 million pasteurization process.
Watch the video over at Grub Street.
Jasper Hill did it right: they actually ate their wheel of Bayley Hazen Blue after sending it into the stratosphere.
Via Cheese Underground, a new report confirms what was always understood but perhaps not confirmed on a scientific level: Cheese from grass-fed cows is quantifiably different:
A final report soon to be published by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture concludes something every cheesemaker and cheese enthusiast has suspected for years: that there are “quantified differences in color, texture, melting points and other attributes” between pasture-fed and conventional dairy products, especially cheese and butter.
An upcoming report titled: “Growing the Pasture-Grazed Dairy Sector in Wisconsin,” is the conclusion of a four-year research project led by Laura Paine, grazing and organic specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. Paine pursued grant funding for the project after research by Dr. Scott Rankin at the University of Wisconsin in 2005 showed pasture-fed cheddar cheese was creamier in texture and more golden in color than the same cheese produced from the milk of confinement-fed cows.
While the research failed to identify a single compound or “smoking gun” to explain the differences the team found between pasture-fed and conventional milk, both the scientists and chefs noted “quantifiable differences” in color, texture and melting points. Dr. Rankin noted that pasture milk has a “grassy note.”
In a side-by-side comparison of the Wisconsin cheeses (see photo above), the grass-fed cheese, on the left, is slightly more golden. The aroma is more earthy and fruity, while the conventional cheese on the right, simply smells clean and milky. The flavors are also distinctly different. The pasture-fed cheese is more complex with a lingering finish. The conventional cheese is more of a one-note cheese with a clean finish.
“When you taste the two side by side, there is no doubt a remarkable difference,” says dairy farmer Bert Paris, who farms using rotational grazing, and whose milk was used to make the pasture-fed cheese in September. “It validates everything we’ve been saying for years.”
Read the full post over on Cheese Underground.
(Photo ©2013 Cheese Underground)
Ever tasted Camel milk, or cheese? Truth is, I haven’t either, but that may change soon, if camel farmers and camel dairy producers can bring it to market:
Although the camel has a well-established reputation as a beast of burden, it also plays a lesser known but vital role within pastoral societies: milk producer. Many ruminants discontinue lactating in harsh climatic environments. However, camels continue to produce highly diluted milk containing over 90% water. Extreme drought conditions are no sweat for the dromedary—they maintain a regular body temperature without the need to perspire and can also lose up to 30 percent of their weight from water loss.
Camels are also adaptable feeders; their ability to digest dry matter and fiber allows them to eat a broad range of plants including thorny bushes and cacti. These traits, along with the camel’s ability to continue to produce a reliable source of nutrition in challenging environments, has led to an increased emphasis on camel milk’s potential to improve food security in drought prone regions.
Camel milk presents certain challenges to cheesemakers, however: