In the United States, raw milk cheese is an (almost) forbidden fruit

With its cows grazing on the verdant slopes of the Appalachian mountains in the eastern United States, Meadow Creek Dairy is not an American cheese dairy like any other: all of its products are made from raw milk.

The small family cheese dairy is a rarity in a market in the United States largely dominated by pasteurized and industrial cheese.

Dressed in blue overalls, Helen Feete and Ana Arguello are busy in front of two vats of several hundred hectoliters to produce two of the cheese dairy’s creations.

Helen Feete, who founded the farm with her husband in the 1990s, told AFP that “there was no model to follow” when turning to cheese production – as there were in the United States so few farms on such a small scale, choosing to produce raw milk products.

And what may seem like a traditional method in Europe – sometimes a source of regional pride – is almost taboo on the other side of the Atlantic.

Cheesemaker Ana Arguello cleans equipment during the production of cheese at Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, Virginia (US), October 5, 2022 (AFP – Brendan Smialowski)

The difference between pasteurized milk and raw milk is the temperature at which the former was heated, i.e. 63°C for 30 minutes or 72°C for 15 seconds.

For his supporters, raw milk cheeses are tastier.

Liz Thorpe, an American author and expert on cheeses, believes that they “capture a certain complexity and originality of flavor that is only possible when the milk is unpasteurized”, pasteurization killing the microflora.

– 60 days –

But for its detractors, this above all represents a risk that the bacteria and microbes in the milk are not eliminated, and thus cause sometimes lethal pathologies such as salmonellosis and listeriosis.

The agency in charge of food regulation in the United States, the FDA, has as a rule “mandatory pasteurization for milk and all dairy products in their final packaging and which are intended for direct human consumption”.

Helen Feete (bottom) and Ana Arguello during the preparation of a cheese from Meadow Creek Dairy, in Galax, Virginia (United States), October 5, 2022 (AFP - Brendan Smialowski)
Helen Feete (bottom) and Ana Arguello during the preparation of a cheese from Meadow Creek Dairy, in Galax, Virginia (United States), October 5, 2022 (AFP – Brendan Smialowski)

However, since the 1940s, the agency has authorized the marketing of cheeses made from raw milk, if they have been aged for a minimum of 60 days at temperatures above 2°C.

– “Frustrating” –

“It’s not so much a barrier as something we have to deal with in making our cheeses,” says Kat Feete, who has worked with her parents and brother on the Meadow Creek Dairy operation since her life.

The FDA’s reasoning is that such a time frame kills any dangerous pathogen present in the milk.

The downside: it is impossible to see unpasteurized soft cheeses appearing on supermarket shelves, whose ripening period is less than the 60 days required.

Cheeses ready for shipment at Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, Virginia (USA), October 5, 2022 (AFP - Brendan Smialowski)
Cheeses ready for shipment at Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, Virginia (USA), October 5, 2022 (AFP – Brendan Smialowski)

“It can be frustrating sometimes not being able to make certain types of cheese,” regrets Kat Feete. “A lot of people wish they could buy a raw milk Brie here.”

Most Meadow Creek Dairy cheeses are semi-soft. Made seasonally, that is to say according to the diet of the cows, they mature in the cellars of the cheese dairy, in an environment with controlled temperature and humidity.

One of their star house cheeses, the semi-soft “Grayson”, could be compared in some respects to a Reblochon from the Alps, and in others to a Maroilles from northern France.

– “Misconceptions” –

Meadow Creek Dairy and other raw milk cheese producers in the United States also face another barrier: the American consumer may still be reluctant to buy a product that they often consider unsafe.

A lot of Americans ‘think raw milk cheese is just illegal, and it’s not true,’ says Liz Thorpe, citing ‘misconceptions’

Dairy cows on the farm of Meadow Creek Dairy, in Galax, Virginia (United States), October 5, 2022 (AFP - Brendan Smialowski)
Dairy cows on the farm of Meadow Creek Dairy, in Galax, Virginia (United States), October 5, 2022 (AFP – Brendan Smialowski)

The author affirms that she struggles to ensure that the general public is better informed that such cheeses are “healthy, safe, and good”, and insists in particular on the importance for a buyer to know the origin of a cheese.

In the early days of Meadow Creek Dairy, “we had some difficulty educating the market, because there was this perception that what we were doing was not very safe”, says Kat Feete from the cheese factory which overlooks the fields where their calves graze.

But according to her, mentalities have started to change in the United States.

“I think people are really starting to accept that raw milk cheese is safe and a good way for a small farmhouse cheese maker to make cheese.”

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