Australia & the raw milk cheese debate

This well worn debate re-enters the public consciousness every so often. Not so long ago, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Now I see it as a struggle over freedom of choice, as well as the right to make and access particular foods in a country of increasingly sophisticated palates.

i love my cheese

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is currently accepting public submissions on its proposed changes to Australian Food Standards for cheese. Recent articles about this proposal feature on Rebecca Varidel’s blog and the Sydney Morning Herald site, and you can lodge a submission by 6pm (Canberra Time) Friday 5 March 2010 (extended from 24 February 2010). Read more about the FSANZ proposal, and how to lodge a submission at the FSANZ website.

Raw milk and raw milk products are derived from unpasteurised milk. The present ban on raw milk and raw milk cheese centres upon the risk of listeria, which can cause listeriosis if ingested, and this can cause serious symptoms in people with compromised immune systems. Pregnant women are already warned to stay away from foods such as soft cheeses, deli meats and cold chicken – essentially any food that is not piping hot or freshly made – because of various bacterial risks including listeria.

Let’s give this some perspective. The incidence of listeriosis, from food and non-food sources, is pretty low with around 60 cases of listeriosis diagnosed in Australia every year. Many more cases may go undetected or are misdiagnosed as a flu-like illness.

Some would say that the low incidence is due to the current regulations; I suggest the low incidence is due to the fact that Western societies generally have excellent levels of hygiene in food production and storage. It’s another case of increased risk due to perceived consequence being much higher than likelihood, without taking controls (eg. use-by dates; hygiene standards; warning labels) into account [SpecialtyFood.com addresses some of the raw milk myths head-on].

I believe that we as consumers are getting smarter, and so too are the scare campaigns. There is propaganda on both sides of the argument. For example,

  • as a former vegan, I do not buy into Slow Food’s claim that milk is “fundamental to human nutrition and health”; and
  • while the risk of listeria may be slightly higher in raw milk products, the risk appears to be highest when there are hygiene issues in production & storage, regardless of pasteurisation, but I am yet to see this quantified.

So what is everyone else doing? In the main, Australia looks to three other nations with respect to regulatory changes: the UK, the US and Canada. You can eat bona fide raw milk cheese in the UK and, while the US has been toying with the idea of making raw milk cheese illegal, it still allows it; Quebec has legalised raw milk cheese within the last two years.

I believe that, if you want to risk your health by eating certain foods, then this is your right as an informed consumer. Look at the thousands of Australians risking heart disease and diabetes by gorging themselves on Australian-made fast food everyday, and weighing heavily on our already burdened public health system in the process. This is their right. We are being denied our right to Australian-produced raw milk products in spite of the fact that the contents and running order of our refrigerators are unregulated.

I am not a health professional nor do I have a commercial interest in this debate; this post is purely based on my opinion. I want it to be clear that I am in this for two reasons: (1) my tastebuds; and (2) my civic rights. There is a huge amount of information available on this topic and I encourage you to do your own research.

If this is something that speaks to your stomach or your sense of civic freedom, or indeed both, then the time to act is now.

And, as I step off my soap-box, I am keener than ever to know what you think.

H 🙂


Addenda of 22 February 2010:

  • Note that, in Australia, we can actually source and eat some raw milk cheese products from some other countries; we can not legally produce them ourselves. Thanks to Matt C for pointing this out (see comments below), as this was not clear in my post.
  • I changed this post to reflect that the closing date for submissions has been extended to 5 March 2010.
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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Matt C says:

    You note that you can eat raw milk cheese in the UK, US and NZ, but I should point out that you can also eat raw milk cheese in Australia. You just can’t make it here.

    We can eat imported grana padano, roquefort and other specific European raw milk cheeses, but local cheesemakers cannot attempt to make their own, even if they make it in the same style and follow the same process.

    1. Hannah says:

      Thanks for your comment, Matt. I have written a postscript to this effect, as it was not at all clear in my post.

      I appreciate the clarification.

      H 🙂

  2. I first became aware of this issue when listening to CarIo Pertrini speaking at UWA last year. I think you’ve presented the debate quite well in this post, and I seem to be in agreement with your opinion/s. I don’t eat much cheese these days, but when I do I would like to be able to choose these cheeses if I feel like it.

    (by the way, the links to lodge a submission don’t seem to be working? Not sure if it’s just for me)

    1. Hannah says:

      I appreciate your comment, Conor, and I think that civic freedom is often undervalued.

      Re the submissions link: maybe click on this link as an alternative, or try searching from the main FSANZ site.

      H 🙂

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