E. Coli in Cheese -- Should You Be Worried?

Adriana Velez

goudaDoes it seem like every day we're finding a fun, new hiding place for E. coli bacteria strains? Last week it was discovered in Bravo Farms Dutch Style Gouda Cheese sold at Costco stores in five western states. Turns out the cheese was made from raw milk.

Raw milk -- in Gouda? When I think of raw milk cheese, I think of those runny, gooey, triple-cream cheeses from France. But many different cheeses, hard and soft, are made from raw milk. The FDA established rules for raw milk cheeses that are meant to protect consumers from harmful bacteria. But recent research suggests these rules may not go far enough.

So if you are concerned about harmful bacteria in your cheese, what should you look for?

I know The Stir has a lot of raw milk proponents who know and trust your milk and cheese producers. There is a concern that methods for killing harmful pathogens can also kill off helpful bacteria. But for those of you who just want to know what the risks are, here's a guide.

I spoke with a USDA processing plant inspector (who must remain anonymous as per USDA rules) to find out what consumers should know about raw milk cheese.

1. Read the label. No matter what kind of cheese, check for "raw" or "unpasteurized" milk in the ingredients label.

2. Children, the elderly, and people with chronic illnesses, cancer, and HIV are especially susceptible to bacteria and food-borne pathogens.

3. If you buy raw milk cheese, treat it like raw meat: Keep it cold (refrigerated) and avoid cross-contamination by cutting it on a separate cutting board from other foods.

4. If you're buying direct from the producer, see if you can visit the farm and facilities. Find out how often they wash their hands, the cows' udders, their equipment, surfaces, barns, etc. How do they control vermin and pets? "It's often easy to overlook something as simple as hand-washing but it can make a huge difference in preventing the spread of bacteria to a previously uncontaminated product," says our inspector.

What about the FDA rules that say that all raw-milk cheese must be aged for 60 days? Doesn't that kill off all harmful pathogens?

That was what researchers believed when the rules were established in the 1940s. However, a recent study at the University of Vermont indicates that 60 days is not enough -- and that bacteria can sometimes still be found even after 10 months. In fact, the aging process may even contribute to pathogen growth.

The FDA is studying the issue more before reconsidering the 60-day aging rule. In the meantime, it makes sense to be an informed consumer.


Image via Grongar/Flickr

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