Review may open door to raw-milk cheese

By Kathryn Powley

It could the biggest thing to hit New Zealand cheese-making since ... sliced cheese.

New Zealand's Food Safety Authority is reviewing its rules about pasteurisation and is considering allowing New Zealand manufacturers to produce "raw milk" cheeses.

At present all milk in New Zealand is pasteurised - heated briefly to kill potentially harmful organisms - before consumption.

Many cheese fanciers say pasteurisation dulls the flavour. Organic and raw food enthusiasts say it's not natural and kills beneficial organisms.

The Bay of Islands' Mahoe Farmhouse Cheese owner, Bob Rosevear, says demand for unpasteurised cheese is already strong, and he welcomes news that rules could change.

"I have a lot of customers who keep asking me for it. The flavour is quite different. It's a strong flavour. Unpasteurised cheese is quite complex and very interesting."

If permitted, he would make a commercial batch of unpasteurised cheese "every now and then".

Mr Rosevear pasteurises milk from Mahoe's own farm, but he said the process kills some enzymes related to flavour.

"You don't get the true biochemical reactions that you normally would get in an unpasteurised system."

Pasteurisation involves heating milk for 15 seconds at 72degC then cooling it very quickly. Another treatment, called "thermisation" requires the milk to be heated at 64.5deg for 16 seconds.

"Thermised" cheese must be kept for 90 days - during which time bacteria in the cheese kills any harmful organisms - before it is sold, he said.

Kerikeri "living food" chef, Rene Archner, believes raw food has more enzymes and "life force" than cooked or heated food.

"In Europe you have raw cheese no problem," said the German- born chef.

In fact, some unpasteurised Swiss cheese is already available on our supermarket shelves, and a large number of Northland rural residents consume raw farm milk everyday.

But that's something Jonathan Jarman, Northland medical officer of health, cautions against.

"Our advice is to avoid drinking raw milk unless it has been scalded first."

Many Northlanders who had contracted campylobacter or salmonella shared drinking raw milk as a "common risk factor".

Listeria, another disease that can be contracted from raw milk, is contracted by one Northlander about once every two years, Dr Jarman said.

New Zealand Food Safety Authority's pasteurisation project manager Lisa Gallagher said rules were developed 60 years ago from experiments with milk-borne organisms then considered of greatest risk to human health. That included tuberculosis which is no longer considered a threat and two diseases no longer present in New Zealand: Brucellosis and Q fever. The present review will examine 11 organisms.

Her team will assess the risk of consuming raw milk and products, and the risk from cheese produced using alternative methods.

"We'll be revisiting the fundamentals of science. Pasteurisation is scientific dogma - one of the building blocks of microbiology - and we're going to be pulling all that apart and starting again," she said.

The project will take two years. In future the risk assessment may be used to assess the risk of other dairy products made from raw milk.

- NORTHERN ADVOCATE (WHANGAREI)

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