Raw milk a key ingredient in some of the world’s finest cheeses
By Liane Faulder, Edmonton Journal September 24, 2013
EDMONTON - I’m not sure whether it smells like ammonia, or a little like my son’s hockey bag. But the Bleu d’Elizabeth, a raw milk cheese from Quebec that I am nibbling at the Cavern cheese shop on 104th Street, takes me away on an exquisite sensory journey. Bouncing along my olfactory nerve, it travels into the part of the brain that fires memory and imagination, eventually landing me — at least in my mind and in my mouth — in the quaint village of Sainte-Elizabeth de Warwick, from whence the delicious blue cheese hails.
That’s the romance, and the beauty, of cheese.
But in a rare occurrence, one person has died and 13 more have become ill from British Columbia to Quebec, including here in Edmonton, after eating a type of raw milk cheese produced at Gort’s Gouda Cheese farm in Salmon Arm, B.C. The owner of Gort’s, Kathy Wikkerink, issued a heartfelt and tear-choked apology to the victims of an E. coli outbreak that has resulted in a recall of more than a dozen cheese products from the family business’s line. Gort’s Gouda, with 30 years in the industry, is co-operating fully with authorities as public health officials look for the exact source of the E. coli, a bacteria that can cause severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, kidney failure and death.
In light of such a tragedy, it’s easy to panic, and to view cheese made from unpasteurized milk — which is legal to sell in Canada — with a jaundiced eye. Ban it! Bring on irradiation! This sort of fear-based attitude is a mistake.
Food-borne pathogens exist. They are a fact of life — always have been, always will be. But to blame, or move to eliminate, an entire food culture, in existence for thousands of years, stimulating both the palate and the economy, would be an overreaction.
That doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. Indeed, at least one expert suggests the outbreak highlights the need to look at raw milk cheese regulation in Canada.
“The public drives this, and the government has to respond,” says Kevin Allen, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia with a food safety background.
Current law, based in historical cheese-aging practices, requires raw milk cheese to sit 60 days to eliminate potential pathogens such as E. coli 1057, salmonella and listeria monocytogenes. But Allen says E. coli can live for longer than 60 days.
“We can’t keep saying that, historically, there is a 60-day aging period. It’s not necessarily based on E. coli 1057, which we didn’t recognize as a food-borne pathogen until 1982,” he says. “If we go back 150 years, it may not have been in the food supply.”
I asked Allen if a longer aging period would be the answer. He says … maybe.
“The longer the cheese is aged, the more inactivation you will have. But it’s hard to put an exact (time) on that. We don’t have the data.”
One solution, says Allen, is to conduct research into how long it takes for a pathogen to be rendered inactive. Or he says you could just pasteurize the milk used in the cheese, a heating process which, properly done, kills pathogens.
Well, that sounds simple enough. Heat the bejezus out of the stuff, and eliminate the worry, the risk, right? Well, sadly, that’s not true. Even cheese that is pasteurized becomes contaminated, causes illness, finds itself on Health Canada’s recall list. It’s just that with pasteurized milk cheese, the contamination occurs after the industrial processing — in the handling and the transportation of the product.
Oh. So then what do we do? Eliminate cheese altogether?
Slow Food Canada executive board member, Bobby Gregoire, is from Quebec, which has nurtured an artisanal raw milk cheese culture for generations. This is not the first time he’s had to stand and defend raw milk cheese.
In 1995, the federal government tried to shut down raw milk cheese production, only to have to sheepishly acknowledge that some of the world’s best cheeses — Parmigiano Reggiano from Italy, classic French cheeses including Camembert — were made with raw milk, through carefully monitored systems developed over centuries.
The fact is that the bacteria present in the raw milk creates a taste profile for cheese that cannot be replicated post-pasteurization.
“It’s impossible to recreate what nature creates first,” says Gregoire, part of a Slow Food campaign to educate the public about raw milk and its products. “If you pasteurize the cheese, you lose the link to the land. It’s impossible to have a terroir product if you pasteurize it.”
It’s important not to leap to conclusions in light of the death and illness surrounding the E. coli outbreak at Gort. At this point, authorities have not even isolated the exact source of the contamination. It could be the raw milk, it could be a length of tubing at the cheese factory, it could be the fresh herbs used to flavour the cheeses. (Indeed, fresh produce, included bagged spinach, has in recent years proved to be an increasingly dangerous source of E. coli contamination, resulting in death, illness, and mass recalls of industrially produced salad greens.)
Back at the Cavern, owner Tricia Bell says her customers have not been expressing any more concern than usual about her selection of raw milk cheeses, which makes up 30 to 40 per cent of her cheese case. Some people specifically ask for the cheese because they know it tastes great, and others, including pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems, avoid the product. Bell takes a balanced approach to the issue of raw milk cheese.
“Anyone working with raw milk products has safety systems and precautions, and a system of vigilance against the proliferation of bad bacteria,” she says. “ … and that is regulated at a federal and provincial level.”
At the end of the day, we all have the responsibility to think about risk, and to manage it as we see fit. While it is simply not feasible to eliminate all food pathogens, it is possible to destroy a food culture, a way of life, and a delicious product, in a rush to placate all and sundry. Accidents will happen, even with right-thinking people doing their best to be safe. I am comfortable with that reality. If you’re not, don’t eat the cheese.
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The OUR COWS raw milk dairy ended as of June 5th 2013. REAL MILK is available these days but only for people who milk their own cow on their own place. The bright lights who run the so-called “Health Authorities” prevailed in the last round of court. So far as we know, they haven’t sent in the goons to the level of pets, yet. Meanwhile, in the Big City, we’re trying to be patient while the legal mess gets sorted-out.
I am willing to ‘walk through the exercise’ of pursuing my appeal through the next level of Court, so as to vindicate that what we were doing never was illegal. The corollary being ; the farmers who challenged the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly. A few of them got convicted, and 2 did spend time in gaol, for the offence of driving some of their own property ( wheat) over the border and selling it in the united States of America, where it was perfectly legal to do so. Last summer, as the Wheat Board monopoly ended, the Prime Minister went out to the farm of one of those ‘rogues’, and pronounced “these people never were criminals” direct quote I am not at all interested in challenging the Stalin-ist milk marketing scheme. I have had my fill of Court. Raw milk will be de-criminalized here in BC, sooner than later. Meanwhile, a cowshare oriented to cheesemaking is the way to avoid any more of the legal non-sense. Along the lines of the old adage : ‘it’s easier to go around the mountain, rather than dig through it with a teaspoon’, following is my latest idea for those who want REAL MILK, to get it legally.
Posted elsewhere on this website, is the content of 2 letters sent to me by provincial Ministries = Agriculture and Health = acknowledging that milk from a cowshare does NOT have to be par-boiled, ie. Pasteur-ized before the members get it. At the very beginning of the Home on the Range cowshare (May 2007) I called up Merv Websteen, then the Chief Veterinarian for the Fraser Valley, and told him what we were doing. I asked him where we could get our cows tested for TB, etc. We had a good conversation in which he told me that he drank raw milk on the farm in Saskatchewan, ‘til he was 12 years old. The day his mother started Pasteurizing it on the stove, he quit drinking it, because he didn’t like the taste. We left off on good terms. He said “we won’t bother you unless we get a complaint”.For the first year, there was no problem. Our cowshare grow from one cow in the backyard, to 12 cows. Then Fraser Health came calling, alleging that what we were doing was illegal. In 5 years’ grief through subsequent Court actions, they never produced that complaint. But we did find out in a roundabout way ; it came from the guy who lived across the road from our farm ... who held milk quota himself. No-one ever got sick from drinking milk from our cowshare ; thus : the whole thing arose from his covetousness.
A friend of mine – who has a doctorate in health sciences and is sympathetic to the theme that we ought to be able to eat and drink what we want, regardless of any perceived risk of harm - gave me a good line. He escaped from communist Poland, where the joke was : “Socialism is the contest of government against common sense. Communism is the triumph of government over common sense”. Perfectly illustrated by the situation today in British Columbia. During cross-examination of Fraser Health’s witness, George Rice, I made him admit that, out of his 33 years as a Health Inspector, he had no evidence of anyone ever getting sick from drinking raw milk. Yet Fraser Health paid lawyers $300,000 on legal fees – filched from the HealthCare budget, mind you! – hectoring me and my friends through court, to prevent us from farming to feed ourselves.
Over the summer, I was a bit dismayed, wondering how to persevere in the Campaign for REAL MILK, while not falling afoul of the idiots in high places. A query about how to get raw milk for cheesemaking reminded me of an idea I’d considered before, but set aside.
The federal law in Canada is, that cheeses made from raw milk which are then aged for 60 days or more, are legal for sale. For instance ; such cheeses are sold in Vancouver at Les Amis de Fromage on East Hastings st. and at WholeFoods. In the several stages of the Court actions, the court did not address the legality of us shareholders jointly-owning a herd of dairy cows. Thus, co-operating in farming to feed ourselves, is not an issue. What Fraser Health kept throwing at us was that we were contravening a minor regulation to do with public health. From material I obtained via Freedom of Information, I saw that, within days of me beating them on that one ( in the first round, 2008) the provincial govt. simply cooked-up a new regulation, deeming raw milk for human consumption to be a public health hazard. What does it say that they then hid from us that new regulation, for 8 months? What it tells me is that, not only were they NOT genuinely interested in the public health’, but that they were gleefully waiting for the slightest report of someone getting sick from raw milk, as a pretext to lower the boom on us. When they had in hand such a specious “incident’, then they seized hundreds of gallons of our milk at various depots around town, dumping it down the sewer, pretending that ‘a child was lying sick in hospital after drinking raw milk’. Six months later I made Chief Health Officer Perry Kendall admit – on official govt. stationery – that there was no evidence of any such thing! I say = it never happened. Yet they made it into a national news story, as part of perpetuating the urban myth so necessary to the dairy cartel’s domination of the milk market.
I am not a lawyer, yet from what I’ve learned in all this, I am confident that a cowshare set up to supply hobbyists with milk for making their own cheeses, is legitimate, on condition that such cheeses are aged for 60 days or more. It’s worth bearing in mind that The Food Act of Quebec sets out conditions under which cheeses made from raw milk may be sold from the farm, regardless of the time they’re aged. One wonders what the farmers in La Belle Province, have learned in their 500 years of farming there, that the bright lights atop the govt. of BC has yet to figure out?! Old Chinese saying is “every crisis contains opportunity”. So I’m using this ‘teachable moment’ to convene a new cowshare which will supply REAL MILK strictly for the purpose of producing artisanal cheeses aged for 60 days.
Over the last 15 years, through 4 previous cowshares, I’ve learned that the rule of thumb, is : a cow on pasture, not having her metabolism cranked-up on the factory-farm diet, gives about 3 gallons a day, averaged over 10 months. Right away, a cowshare needs about 20 households to take the milk one cow gives, per week. Cows are social animals, so it’s best to have another one, for company. Good dairy cows are $2000. I have one in mind, “Caramel” a pedigreed Guernsey which I imported from the States a few years ago. "Golden Guernsey milk", is famous because it's a bit more yellow than other breeds. Therefore, for starters, a 2 cow cowshare needs about $6400 capitalization to buy cows, along with all the glass jars, the milking machine, etc. Under the name “AcAciA Dairy” I’m organizing cheesemakers into a privately-underwritten dairy, for the purpose of providing REAL MILK with which they can make their own cheeses. That translates into each share being $160. After the share purchase fee, there’s a $20 agistment fee, per week, thereafter. The shareholder will get a gallon a week, or any combination of quantities that suits his or her timing in making batches of cheese. Such as = 4 gallons, once a month, etc.
Below is the Agreement which I've prepared to get the thing under way.
Gordon S Watson
Email < firstname.lastname@example.org >
Telephone 604 349 1442
Surface mail : 7954 Elwell Street Burnaby British Columbia V5E 1M4
Memorandum of Agreement
for participation in the cowshare carrying on farming as The AcAciA Dairy
1. I ________________ hereby purchase from Gordon S Watson ___ share in the herd of dairy cows known as The AcAciA herd, out of 40 shares total, each share being valued as of this date at $160 / one hundred sixty dollars
2. Among other rights, each share entitles its owner to a proportional amount of fresh whole milk produced by cows in the herd, which milk is divided on a “best efforts basis”, at the sole discretion of the Agister, namely Gordon S Watson.
3. I agree to pay Gordon S Watson a fee of $20 per week in exchange for him providing services to and around the herd, including feeding, maintaining and milking the cows daily, then preparing the milk for pickup. The amount of agistment fee may change from time to time, to reflect changes in costs of maintaining the herd, or other factors.
4. Products other than milk produced by the herd, as well as calves born to cows in the herd, are the jointly-held property of all Persons holding shares in it as an entity. No shareholder is entitled to take possession of any of the cows, nor any portion of a cow.
5. Gordon S Watson reserves the right to refund to any particular shareholder the fee he or she paid for a share, or shares, and to take back that share(s). A shareholder may at any time request a refund of the share purchase fee, which shall be refunded without interest, within 14 days of such notice. If and when a shareholder redeems his share, or the Agister takes back that share, then that Person’s entitlement to get produce from the herd, ie. milk, ceases immediately.
6. The purchaser of the share appreciates that there is a debate about the relative risk of the likelihood of human pathogens being transmitted in raw cow’s milk and with that understanding, the Shareholder hereby agrees to accept all of any such risk, saving Gordon S Watson blameless and harmless for damages for any untoward affects of the milk derived from the herd of cows which is the subject of this agreement.
7. I have read this Agreement and understand it.
Received from _______________ exactly $ ___ as full payment for ___ share out of 40 shares in the abovementioned herd of dairy cows.
Signed this _______ day of September 2013 A. D.
Shareholder ____________________ Agister _______________________