The truth about raw milk cheese

Photo credit: Alliance for Natural Health USA

This following article has been reprinted in full with permission from Culture: the word on cheese; author Leigh Belanger is the magazine’s food editor. We wanted to run it to educate our customers and consumers in general about raw milk cheese, since there’s a lot of fear and misinformation rampant in the media (please note we’ve also added two of our own links, on raw fluid milk and the FDA’s role in regulating cheesemakers).

When the culture staff saw the news of the Vulto Creamery cheese recall caused by listeria contamination on Friday, we were heartbroken for the consumers who lost their lives; for the cheesemaker’s business and livelihood now at risk; and for members of the cheese community in the US, who have worked tirelessly to ensure food safety in their products. We—like many cheesemakers, distributors, and retailers around the country—are concerned that this incident will unfairly cause people to perceive artisan cheese as an unsafe product.

After reading media coverage that contributed to this misguided notion, we thought it would be helpful for people to read a little further about where the risks lie in terms of food safety and cheese.

1. Don’t confuse raw fluid milk and raw-milk cheese. The milk you pick up in the grocery store has been pasteurized—heat treated to kill off bacteria both “bad” (i.e. pathogens like listeria and salmonella) and “good.” This extends shelf life and improves food safety. Raw milk has not been pasteurized. It’s not sterile but is full of microorganisms prized by cheesemakers for their ability to transform into flavor and aroma compounds. It carries inherent risk but once raw milk is transformed into cheese, the risk factor goes down. See #2.

2. Raw-milk cheese made according to established protocols is safe. In the US, cheese made with raw milk must be aged for 60 days before it is sold to consumers. When some types of cheese (such as low-moisture, cooked curd styles like Gruyere) mature, they become more acidic and lose much of their moisture, creating an environment where listeria and other pathogens are less likely to thrive. In soft-ripened cheese, though, the cheese retains more moisture and the pH rises during aging (resulting in a less acidic product); both of these factors can lead to increased risk of pathogen growth during ripening. Either way, cheesemakers in the US have worked with the Food and Drug Administration to create and adhere to many food safety protocols—sanitation processes, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plans, pathogen controls, testing—all along the production chain to ensure a safe product.

3. Milk isn’t necessarily the source of contamination. Raw milk doesn’t come out of an animal already tainted with listeria. The pathogen could find its way into the milk via an infected udder or elsewhere in the environment. But once the milk is transformed into cheese, contamination can happen in any number of ways. These include dampness in an aging facility, handling practices, or cross-contamination from an infected employee. This is important to note: the risk of contamination isn’t exclusive to raw milk. It’s possible throughout the production process, which means that all cheese (especially soft cheese, since it has a higher moisture content) carries a certain amount of risk.

4. Listeria contamination in cheese is relatively rare. When the FDA conducted a survey of more than 1,600 raw-milk cheeses for different common food-borne pathogens in 2014, only 10 samples, or 0.62 percent, were found to have listeria. Among those, five were domestic cheeses. However, listeria does have a high fatality rate (the proportion of deaths within the confirmed cases of the disease): nearly 20 percent compared to 0.5 percent in salmonella.

5. Other foods can harbor listeria, too. Although listeria outbreaks have been reduced over the past 20 years due to closer regulatory oversight, we’ve seen outbreaks in cantaloupes, packaged caramel apples, and bean sprouts in recent years. Again, it’s a reminder that raw milk itself is not necessarily the culprit in listeria outbreaks.

We visited Vulto’s creamery last year and were moved not only by his personal story, but by his drive to learn and improve his craft to the point that a side project could become his main focus over the course of just a few years. He is one of hundreds of artisan cheesemakers creating unique and delicious cheese in this country. As food safety records show, consuming most foods comes with a degree of risk that consumers must weigh. Knowing how diligent the cheesemaking industry has been in ensuring food safety, our hope is that consumers will continue to support domestic cheesemakers, and make fully informed risk assessments when doing so.

The “solid” facts about winter cheesemaking

Milking time at Hacienda Zuleta, Ecuador. Photo credit: Laurel Miller

Milking time at Hacienda Zuleta, Ecuador. Photo credit: Laurel Miller

Most people don’t realize that cheese is a seasonal product. Since its discovery sometime around 2000 BC, fresh cheese has been a way to use surplus milk. The process of aging cheese is actually one of the earliest methods of food preservation, and provided crucial protein and other nutrients during the lean winter months, when certain species of dairy animals don’t usually lactate.

Despite advances in the dairy industry over the centuries, cheesemaking has changed little, and on a small scale, remains a highly seasonal endeavor. Since milk is the main ingredient in cheese, it’s important to understand how its chemical composition changes over the course of a year. These factors are additionally influenced by species, breed, terrain, and climate.

Milk comes from lactating mammals, i.e., those that have recently given birth. In the case of cheese, that milk comes from a ruminant, or cud-chewing mammal with a four-chambered stomach. The stomachs of ruminants are specially adapted to break down their entirely plant-based diet.

Now, think about the seasonal nature of grasses and other woody, leafy plants (goats are browsers, rather than grazers, and so prefer to strip branches of shrubs and trees or nibble thorny grasses to obtain nutrients). Here in Colorado, pasture is either covered in snow, or fairly barren, as is the case with our high-desert dairy in Cañon City. In that part of the state, there’s little in the way of forage for goats, even during the spring and summer months, which is why we supplement our goats’ diet with alfalfa hay and grain year- round.

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Time for milking at the Skyline Correctional Center dairy in Canon City, Colorado. Photo credit: Barry Staver

The change in diet is one major reason why milk undergoes compositional changes with the seasons. In the case of our herd, the biggest change that we see is in the ratio of solids (fats and proteins) in the milk, which become higher in winter.

Climate changes can also affect milk. There’s  a sharp contrast in seasonal temperature in Colorado (in Cañon City, it routinely tops 100 degrees in summer,  and drops to the mid-20s in winter). Goats are naturally inclined to drink more water in hot weather (which is also generally when they’re lactating), which results in lower levels of milk solids during the summer months. The variance in milk solids requires our cheesemaker to carefully review their levels and make slight recipe adjustments throughout the year.

The timing of breeding season also depends upon goat breed and climate. Goats naturally lactate for up to 10 months after kidding. Ideally, they’ll be given a break before being bred again, to allow their bodies to regain strength. For a cheese company of our size- we maintain a herd of 1,100 milkers- we can stagger the breeding. This enables us to keep a small, but continuous, supply of milk throughout the year, so we can continue to make cheese. Like us, many cheesemakers also have aged cheese in their line, so they have product to sell during the winter months.

Fortunately, our does have just started kidding again, and a plentiful supply of milk and bouncy baby goats are just around the corner. We look forward to seeing you soon at the farmers markets!

For more detailed information on goat milk composition, go to the DRINC (Dairy Research & Information Center, UC Davis) website.

 

Recipe: Winter Squash Soup with Applewood Smoked Chevre

Photo credit: Bourbon and Brown Sugar

Photo credit: Bourbon and Brown Sugar

Baby, it’s cold outside. Snuggle up with a bowl of this rich, sweet, filling soup, heaped with smoky chevre. Mmmmm.

serves 6Smoked Chevre Soup

1 large kabocha or medium butternut squash, about 4 lbs.

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 slices bacon, diced

1 large yellow onion, chopped

6 cups chicken stock

1/2 cups heavy cream

juice of one orange

salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste

extra virgin olive oil, for garnish

fried sage leaves, for garnish*

4 ounces Haystack Mountain Applewood Smoked Chevre, for garnish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Halve squash lengthwise, and place cut side down on an oiled baking sheet.  Bake until  squash can be easily skewered with tip of a paring knife, about 45 minutes.  Remove from oven and cool.  With a spoon, remove seeds and discard.  Scrape the pulp and reserve in a bowl.  Discard the skin.

Melt one tablespoon of butter in a stockpot over medium heat.  Add the bacon and onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and the bacon is just turning golden, about 7 minutes.  Add the squash and chicken stock, and simmer until the squash falls apart, about 30 minutes.  Let cool for about 20 minutes.

Working in small batches, puree the soup in a blender (don’t fill it more than half-way, or the hot soup can explode from the container) until very smooth.  Strain through a fine mesh strainer or chinois into a clean stockpot, and add the cream and orange juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.  If the soup is too thick, thin it with a bit of stock or water, and reheat if necessary

Ladle the soup into hot bowls, and garnish with a drizzle of the olive oil. Crumble a bit of chevre over each bowl, garnish with *two sage leaves (fry them lightly in olive oil until crisp), and serve immediately.

©Laurel Miller, The Sustainable Kitchen ®, 1999.

Milk does a body really, really good.

Taking a dip in dairy is hardly new; no less than Cleopatra was said to have bathed in asses’ milk. Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), which have been scientifically proven to improve the look and feel of human skin. Whether it’s derived from cow, sheep, or goat (speaking from a strictly practical–and not too gross–perspective), all milk contains lactic acid. Yet the caprine variety appears to reign superior when it comes to skin soothing.

Don’t believe us? Stop by our creamery to check out our cheesemaker Jackie Chang’s arms, which spend their days immersed in creamy goat’s milk. Her skin is freakishly soft and youthful-looking.

Photo credit: Montello Rotary Club

Photo credit: Montello Rotary Club

Over the last few years, goat milk-infused beauty products have reached, er, saturation point, but we’re not complaining. We love our goat milk soap (handcrafted by Haystack founder Jim Schott’s wife, Carol), which are so delicious-smelling and pure, we’re tempted to snack on them (at least, the Rosemary-Lemon-Mint, and Coffee varieties).

Goat milk, due to its chemical composition, is especially gentle and nourishing for those with sensitive or otherwise reactive skin (aka everyone in Colorado). Here are some of our other favorite, goaty beautifying products…although we can’t guarantee how good they’ll taste.

 Goat Milk Stuff: These no-frills farmstead products–liquid and bar soaps, lotion, lip balm, and laundry soap–are produced on a family farm and free of unecessary additives and stuff you can’t pronounce.

Second Bloom Farm: Perhaps the most luscious array of goat milk products ever, made on a New Mexican goat dairy. We discovered these over a decade ago at the Santa Fe farmers market, and still long for their discontinued liquid laundry soap (the smell was downright intoxicating). Soaps, balms, and lotions in scents from Almond and Spanish anise to Lemon Verbena and Coconut Dream.

Kate Somerville: While the price isn’t as nice, this is an amazing product line. Try the rich Goat Milk Cream for irritated facial skin, or the absorbent Goat Milk Body Lotion.

Most local drugstores carry goat milk beauty products (Canus is a pretty ubiquitous brand), but we find farmers markets, specialty food stores, co-ops, and skincare shops all great places to find locally-made products. Wishing you soft skin this winter!