The science keeps piling up. It is not safe to consume raw milk
and its products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
recently announced studies that show again that pathogens from raw
milk including tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid, Salmonella,
Listeria, and many other bacterial infections make it unsafe for
human consumption. A comprehensive study was released last month by
Belgian authorities that concluded that "raw milk poses a
realistic health threat due to possible contamination with human
pathogens." Interestingly, the same study found that there was
"no substantial change in the nutritional value of raw milk or
other benefits associated with raw milk consumption," but
that's a story for another day. And, of course, the unfortunate
proof keeps coming, with hundreds of outbreaks, many deaths and
thousands of illnesses just in the last few years due to raw milk
and raw milk cheese.
Just because raw milk and raw milk cheese are not as safe as if
they were pasteurized doesn't necessarily mean that they should
be banned. That is why regulations around the world are so
inconsistent. The sale of raw milk is illegal in Scotland, but
legal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (indeed our future
king will drink nothing else, a fact that could be used by both
sides of the debate!). South of the border the states are roughly
evenly divided, but interstate commerce is banned. Raw milk and
most raw milk cheeses are banned in Australia but legal in New
Zealand. In Canada, the sale of raw milk directly to consumers is
prohibited by a variety of provincial provisions and it is a
federal crime to sell unpasteurized milk under B.08.002.2(1) of the
Food and Drug Regulations.
Canada continues to allow the sale of raw milk cheeses aged over
60 days, but provides this clear warning: "Health Canada's
ongoing advice to pregnant women, children, older adults and people
with a weakened immune system is to avoid eating cheese made from
raw milk as it does present a higher risk of foodborne illness than
pasteurized milk cheeses. If consumers are unsure whether a cheese
is made from pasteurized milk, they should check the label or ask
When I first wrote about this issue three years ago I pointed
out the regulatory absurdity of the last sentence in the Health
Canada (HC) warning. There is no requirement to label and most
retailers have no idea if the cheese is made from raw milk, and
have no means to determine if it is. At the time I received an
informal response to my article from a senior official advising me
that before moving to mandatory labelling, HC was going to partner
with FDA to do a risk assessment of raw milk cheese, focusing
specifically on the risk of illness from Listeria monocytogenes.
The results of this risk assessment were released last summer:
"The risk of listeriosis from the consumption of soft-ripened
cheese made from raw milk is substantially larger than that for
consumption of soft-ripened cheese made from pasteurized milk and
the 60-day aging regulation actually increases the risk of
listeriosis for consumption of raw milk cheeses." The risk was
found to be from 50 to 160 times greater. This resulted in HC
issuing a Voluntary Guidance to manufacturers that included
suggestions to industry to do regular testing of both the raw milk
and the cheese and that "Manufacturers should consider
labelling their products with the words 'made from raw or
unpasteurized milk' on the front panel display and/or in the
list of the ingredients."
The Guidance document seeks feedback from stakeholders before
developing new "policy and/or regulatory options."
Here's mine, again: stop the bureaucratic dithering and do what
the Americans, Brits and Europeans have already done – make
it mandatory for all manufacturers to label their raw milk cheeses.
It's useless, as they say, to try to reason someone out of
something they didn't reason themselves into, so if we
can't stop people from consuming raw milk and its products,
then let's at least ensure that it is not consumed unknowingly
particularly by children, the elderly or expectant mothers. HC now
requires unpasteurized juice to be labelled. Who's against
mandatory labelling of raw milk cheese?
This article originally appeared in Food in
Canada as "Label raw milk cheese" and is
republished with the permission of the publisher.
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