Te Mata Cheese hopes a relaxation of rules, allowing European raw milk cheeses to be imported from July, will pave the way for local companies to make raw milk products.
The New Zealand Food Safety Authority has approved direct imports of Roquefort, a soft raw milk cheese made in France, previously banned here because of the risk of listeria, a bacterium which can cause serious illness and miscarriages.
"Since I've been in New Zealand, 50 per cent of the questions I get asked is 'When will we start making cheese with raw milk?'," Te Mata head cheesemaker Jean Luc Danquigny says.
"A lot of people want it."
Mr Danquigny, who has experience creating raw milk cheese in Europe, said it tasted "like nothing I can describe", with the flavour influenced by the seasons, the region and the breed of cow that produced it.
Raw milk could contain staphylococcus, tuberculosis and listeria, which had to be removed during the cheesemaking process.
Each consumer had to weigh up the risk when eating it, and trust their cheesemaker, "but assuming the risks are controlled, then its fine", Mr Danquigny said.
If the authority gives New Zealand cheesemakers the go-ahead, Te Mata Cheese will be first to make the raw milk cheese: "I wish I could do it today."
The authority is now consulting industry groups on a proposal to bring in extra hard Parmesan-style raw milk cheeses Grana Padano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Romano, Asiago and Montasio.
Small consignments of these cheeses currently enter New Zealand via Australia under the Trans-Tasman Mutual Recognition Agreement. Direct importation would make them more readily available in specialty shops and restaurants. Other raw milk cheeses such as Dutch goudas and edams and French bries and camemberts could follow.
Food safety criteria set by the European Community are similar to those in place for the manufacture of New Zealand cheeses, said safety authority director Tim Knox.
"These measures will not lower the risks associated with Roquefort to the same level as pasteurised dairy products because raw milk cheeses are an inherently higher risk product, but they can lower the risks for most healthy New Zealanders to a level similar to other common risky foods already available in New Zealand," he said.
Allowing the direct importation of certain raw milk cheeses was a precursor to New Zealand manufacturers being able to produce their own, he said.
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