Slow Food has been fighting for the rights of consumers to buy raw milk and the rights of cheesemakers to make cheese from raw milk for almost two decades, and its biennial event, Cheese, has long been a forum for publicizing the issue.
This year Cheese 2011 sees the launch of the campaign site for raw milk. As part of the campaign, an international panel of cheesemakers, experts and cheesemongers came together on Saturday to share their experiences and describe the situation in their own countries.
One of the countries with the strictest legislation against raw milk is Australia. Cheese expert Will Studd has been fighting it for years, but with little success. It is illegal to export raw-milk cheese and since 1996 the production and sale of all raw-milk cheese has been banned, with a very few exceptions. "Imagine a world without Parmigiano Reggiano," he asked the audience. "When your country doesn't allow this kind of cheese, it's time to fight. We've been fighting for change since 1996 and government hasn't really listened at all. They just announced last week that they are recommending no major change to the current situation." He said the sale of raw milk would become a criminal offense. "The country that represents 12 percent of the world's cheese production can set an example that could be followed in the USA, perhaps in Europe. It is worth fighting for the right to a choice."
American cheesemaker Mateo Kehler, from the American Raw Milk Cheeses Presidium, explained how the situation in his country may also get worse: "We have a very precarious situation. The Food and Drug Administration is proposing doing a risk assessment which will lead to changes in the next 12 to 18 months." Currently cheeses can be made from raw milk if they are aged for at least 60 days, but that could change. He said cheesemakers around the USA were organizing scientists to publish research on the safety of raw milk, and despite saying it would take a lot of public pressure to hold on to the right to make raw-milk cheeses, he was generally optimistic. "There's a revolution happening outside the control of the government. People are voting with their forks and making choices about how they want to feed themselves and their families." He concluded: "If it's possible to sell sushi and oysters, it should be possible to sell safe raw milk."
Elisabeth Ryan is coordinating a campaign in Ireland against proposed changes to the law that would make it illegal to sell liquid raw milk. She said the government was coming under pressure from the Irish food safety agency to present an international image of Ireland as a safe food country. "This ‘sterilization' of food trumps quality," she said. "We need to find a way to convince the government that with regulations and best practices we can minimize the risks relating to raw milk. It's estimated that 100,000 people in Ireland consume raw milk and we've only had two cases of illness from raw milk in last ten years."
Ryan works for Sheridans Cheesemongers, and one of its founders, Seamus Sheridan, also gave his perspective. "Here in the Langhe you produce beautiful wine. I don't think it should be pasteurized. In Ireland we produce the most beautiful milk in the world and I believe that farmers should have the right to sell it safely as they want," he said. "We must fight for the biodiversity of our farmers, foods and agriculture and for pleasure and taste."
From the Netherlands, Marjolein Kooistra, the Aged Artisanal Gouda Presidium coordinator, described a different situation. The sale of raw milk was not a big legal issue in her country, she said, but the main problem raw-milk cheesemakers faced was cheeses made with thermized milk (submitted to a process similar to pasteurization but that uses lower temperatures) being sold as raw milk.
Piero Sardo, president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, brought the discussion to a close with some final words. He blamed industrial dairy producers for imposing pasteurization and lobbying against raw milk. "We had 10,000 years of raw-milk cheese before Pasteur, and we're still here. Europe hasn't been stricken by epidemics," he said, before rallying the audience to support the fight: "We're the only ones who can stand up against this. They can't force us to eat sterile food, but nobody is going to defend us. We have to do it ourselves, by choosing, protesting, organizing events, campaigning, refusing to eat plastic cheeses."
Currently available in Italian and English, it will soon be translated into five more languages. The site discusses the benefits and concerns with raw milk, and tells the stories of Slow Food's campaign and "Raw Milk Heroes" in various countries. "We want to highlight the incredible work of shepherds, cheesemakers, sometimes in very marginalized areas. These are the real heroes we want to show to the world," said Michele Mesmain from Slow Food.