When did raw milk become illegal?

Raw milk cheese : Clash of civilizations

For the US government, it is a dangerous substance and is therefore prohibited. In the European Union it is subject to strict hygiene regulations and is referred to in the most beautiful bureaucratic language as “the unchanged milk of farm animals”. For many, it is simply a delicacy from which wonderful cheese can be made: raw milk. Freshly milked, from the cow, the goat or the sheep.

It is not heated like pasteurized milk, but untreated, just like it comes from the animal's udder, processed into raw milk cheese. "This cheese," says Patrick Valiente with a French accent, "is something very special."

Valiente, 45 years old, wears a white shirt and black apron. He stands behind a chrome counter in the gourmet department of the Galeries Lafayette department store in Berlin. Valiente is French and head of the cheese department. In front of him are 200 different varieties, most of them made from raw milk: Camembert de Normandie, Brie de Meaux, Comté, Roquefort ...

Some taste spicy, some very mild. Sometimes they are fiery, sometimes fresh. Some are so ripe that if you cut them, they will almost fade. Others have a slightly grainy layer in the middle and dark spots on the white bark. They can be cut like butter or planed with power. Some can be sucked to taste more nuances. Others are just put on your tongue, where they melt like a snowflake.

It's hard to believe that a dispute has broken out over this raw milk cheese. And that there is a dispute about a danger that cannot be seen with the naked eye: bacteria.

These are extremely important for the taste of a raw milk cheese. "Because the raw milk is not heated, the bacterial cultures are preserved," says Valiente. They initiate the ripening of the cheese and are responsible for the variety of flavors. But this is precisely where the critics of raw milk cheese see the problem.

Because the risk of dangerous bacteria creeping in, which can be life-threatening for humans, can never be completely ruled out; unless the milk is pasteurized beforehand. Unwanted germs are only killed by heating to 73 degrees. However, those bacteria that are so important for taste are also killed.

For a French person, pasteurized cheese is a sacrilege. “It's like a funeral,” says Philippe Causse, owner of the Maître Philippe cheese shop in Berlin. "The bacteria have died, the cheese has died, it can no longer develop, it only tastes of water and fat."

Raw milk is banned in the US. Despite the threat of high fines and imprisonment, many Americans do not want to spoil their appetite. So an absurd subculture has developed: Raw milk fans have to meet secretly, like drug addicts, in some parking lot to get their stuff. The business is lucrative, paying five dollars for a liter of milk without the blink of an eye.

In Germany, raw milk cheese is in every well-stocked cheese counter. However, strict hygiene regulations of the European Union apply: The products must be labeled as raw milk products. The milk must be made into cheese immediately after milking. Production and farms are regularly checked by the authorities.

Nevertheless, last year 356 people contracted listeriosis, caused by bacteria that can also be found in raw milk products. They cause flu-like symptoms but can lead to blood poisoning and meningitis. People with weak immune systems are at risk. Pregnant women, the elderly and children should avoid raw milk.

Even vacationers have to be careful with raw milk products. In Greece and Bosnia, several people have contracted Mediterranean fever in the past few weeks. These are also bacteria, in the worst case there is a risk of cardiac arrhythmias and a failure of brain functions.

However, the risk of contracting bacteria does not only exist with raw milk cheese. If the hygienic regulations are not adhered to and germs have lodged themselves in the joints or machines of a company, then pasteurized cheese is not immune from infestation.

In France, the motherland of raw milk cheese, the discussion about dangerous pathogens has turned into a solid dispute over the past year. On the one hand there were many traditional manufacturers, especially small cheese dairies, on the other hand a large corporation. The French press elevated the conflict to “guerre du camembert”, the Camembert war.

One of the world's largest cheese producers, the French group Lactalis, had switched its cheese production to pasteurized milk. Consumers should be protected from health risks. Lactalis did not want to do without the AOC quality seal - Appellation d’Origine Controlée - which French cheesemakers can now use when they make Camembert from raw milk. This led to violent protests from many small businesses. They feared that customers would no longer be able to differentiate between their raw milk cheese and the pasteurized industrial cheese.

In the end, the responsible commission decided in favor of the arguments of the raw milk advocates. Lactalis has not used the seal since then.

Pasteurization has a great advantage for companies, writes Wolfram Siebeck in “Die Zeit”. These cheese products “can be stored for a long time. They were made from pasteurized milk and no longer contain any bacteria that could promote the ripening process. After all, it is not at all desirable that they continue to mature on the supermarket shelves. They should look and taste the same today as they did a week ago and in two weeks ”.

So does raw milk cheese always taste good and pasteurized cheese always bad? “No,” says Ursula Heinzelmann. “Raw milk alone does not make good cheese.” The author has written several books about cooking and eating (“Cooking Experience”). The next one will be about cheese. That is why Heinzelmann has visited cheese factories all over Germany in the past four months. Now she is sitting in her Berlin apartment and talking about surprising discoveries that she has made. “I have eaten banal raw milk cheese and very good cheese made from pasteurized milk.” There are many factors that count when making cheese. The question of the temperature and humidity in the storage room, for example, is just as important as the question of raw milk.

On her trip, Heinzelmann also made a detour to the Allgäu, to Anton Holzinger's Zurwies cheese dairy. The trained dairy specialist has been making his own cheese for over 40 years. He says: "If the cows stand in the barn all year round and only eat silage, then the farmer can make raw milk cheese out of the milk, but it doesn't taste good." The prerequisite for good cheese is good milk, i.e. milk from happy cows, those who stand on the alpine pastures, who eat fresh grass and herbs, who stand in meadows that are not fertilized.

The milk of Camembert de Normandie, one of the most famous raw milk cheeses, comes from happy cows, of that Patrick Valiente is convinced. At his cheese counter in Galeries Lafayette, he offers five different types. "It rains very often in Normandy, the pastures are green, the cows the most beautiful and fat in all of France."

He buys his Camembert directly from a small farmer, a manufacturer whose cheese dairy is in the small town of Camembert. The customer pays 5.90 euros for 250 grams, which is still inexpensive. Anyone who has ever bought raw milk cheese knows that it usually gets more expensive.

Valiente takes a knife and cuts through the buttery loaf. The cheese sticks to the fingers, melts on the tongue, the palate contracts. This camembert tastes spicy and very creamy. It leaves a slightly pungent, intense aftertaste.

In order for a raw milk cheese to develop its correct aroma, it should be taken out of the refrigerator before eating and eaten at room temperature. Fortunately for gourmets, nothing is missing anymore, right? "Yes," says Valiente, "fresh baguette and a good red wine."

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