A group of Wisconsin’s federal lawmakers have requested the US Food and Drug Administration look again at recent standards intended to limit the level of non-toxigenic E. coli allowed in raw milk cheese. ‘Raw’ milk – or to give it its proper scientific name, sewage – is milk that has not been pasteurised. While cheese carries a lower risk of foodborne illness than the raw milk from which it is made, the risk is still there. Wisconsin produces a lot of cheese and lawmakers and producers are worried the stricter standard could affect production.
Non-toxigenic E. coli are not bacteria that cause illness but their presence is a good indicator of overall hygiene in food production. The FDA had allowed up to 10,000 colony-forming units per gram but now they’ll take action if a product contains over 10 units of the bacteria in three out of five samples. Cheesemakers say unpasteurized cheese has to age longer to meet those standards and smaller manufacturers cannot afford to carry the extra inventory the rule change will necessitate.
John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, said both pasteurized and raw milk cheese should be held to the same standard, so long as that standard is “based on scientific research”. Yet it is a very well-established scientific fact that pasteurisation kills harmful bacteria and has been responsible for eliminating much foodborne illness. It is also a fact that its absence has directly caused many outbreaks of foodborne illness, and continues to do so.
So if producers wish to manufacture food that is safe to eat from inherently unsafe ingredients, surely it is not unreasonable for them to be held to a higher standard?