In the 1850s, several New York dairies were caught in what reporters dubbed the “swill milk” scandal. Dairy cows were being fed grain distillation remnants and kept in awful conditions; their milk was off-color and diseased, but producers would mix it with chalk and flour and sell it as pure. The practice led to the deaths of about 8,000 children, causing a crisis that eventually led to pasteurization becoming the norm in the dairy industry. Though some complained that the process of heating milk to kill off harmful bacteria also killed off the flavor, most accepted it as a necessary sacrifice to make for public health. Raw milk is making a bit of a comeback, but the CDC still warns against it.
The American cheese industry is booming, and for the first time ever, an American cheese was named the best in the world at the World Cheese Awards. However, according to professor and food scientist Catherine Donnelly in her in her new book, Ending the War on Artisan Cheese, the industry is under threat. The fear of unpasteurized milk has spilt over into a fear of unpasteurized cheese, which affects traditional cheesemaking methods. The FDA currently rules that any cheese produced in the U.S. either has to be made from pasteurized milk, or be held for 60 days, with the idea that harmful bacteria will die out in that time. Donnelly argues these rules hurt traditional and artisan cheesemakers, and aren’t based in science—which regularly shows that cheese made from unpasteurized milk is safe to consume. In an interview with Eater, Donnelly spoke about the government overreach threatening America’s artisanal cheese industry, and what it will take to get Americans to trust raw milk cheese. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.