Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Coming soon to a store in New Zealand?

I have written several times about the potential hazards of consuming raw milk and raw milk products. Search this site using keyword “raw milk” for other posts.

Currently the New Zealand food regulations allow only three particular hard and very hard Swiss cheeses, extra-hard Parmesan style grating cheeses like Grana Padano, Pamigiano Reggiano, Romano, Asiago and Montasio and the semi-hard Roquefort cheese. Local manufacture of similar products is not permitted. See www.nzfsa.govt.nz/publications/media-releases/2008/2008-08-07-raw-milk.htm

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority is now asking for submissions on a proposed framework for the manufacture, importation and sale of raw milk products. See www.nzfsa.govt.nz?consultation

Aficionados of raw milk cheeses will applaud this move. It is quite possible to produce safe cheeses without pasteurization of milk and, provided that the resulting products are safe, manufacturers and consumers should be given the opportunity to make and taste them. However, the process requires strict control of animal health and rigorous processing hygiene - good regulations and inspection will be needed.

Even the cheesemakers are divided on the desirability of permitting the manufacture of raw milk cheeses. One, quoted in the Otago Daily Times on 11th August 2008 said that cheeses made from non-pasteurised milk could be “lovely", but they could also be “bloody awful stuff". The explanation for this is that pasteurized milk contains only heat resistant bacteria, such as some Streptococcus species and sporeformers. The cheese is made by inoculating the pasteurized milk with known cultures of "starter bacteria", which will produce lactic acid to coagulate the milk protein and produce a curd. When cheese is made from unpasteurized milk, the bacteria present in the raw milk may grow beside the starters. This can result in more complex flavours, but can also lead to variation between batches. Unfortunately, the non-starter bacteria can sometimes cause disease, such as salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis, or may produce toxins, such as staphylococcal enterotoxin.

Softer raw milk cheeses represent a greater risk to the consumer because of their higher water activity, which allows some pathogens to survive and grow. Control over the milk production and handling and the cheesemaking process itself must therefore be absolutely spot-on for these products.

Under the proposed framework, raw milk products would be categorised according to the risks they present. Category one products would pose no greater food safety concerns than pasteurised cheeses, such as Parmesan-style raw milk cheeses. Category two products would pose a low risk for the general population but vulnerable consumers with reduced immunity might be at greater risk. Products in this category would include semi-hard Roquefort. Category three would cover those raw milk products that cannot currently be produced to an acceptable level of safety for the general population. (As far as I know, this category has not yet been defined more closely).

Assuming that the consultation process approves the proposed framework, locally produced raw milk cheeses and other raw milk products may soon hit the delicatessen and specialty store shelves. It may be too soon to expect these products to be sold in supermarkets.

Would I eat raw milk cheese? Probably not until the framework were shown to be working well and the suppliers had built up a record of selling safe products. Even then, I would eat only the hard or semi-hard varieties. Would I give it to my little granddaughter? Not a chance! Raw milk products are not for little children or the immunocompromised.

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