The battle over raw-milk cheese has come home to Missouri. On Tuesday the Howell County Circuit Court upheld a ruling by the Missouri State Milk Board that Morningland of the Ozarks, a dairy in Mountain View, would have to destroy all the raw-milk cheeses it produced between January and June 2010, when traces of two bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes and Staphylococcus aureus, were found in samples taken from a store in California.
The decision effectively spells the end of the road for Morningland.
"Morningland had been in business for 30 years," says Doreen Hannes, a spokeswoman for the dairy. "In that time, zero incidents of people getting sick from their raw-milk cheese have been reported, or even rumored."
The longstanding debate over raw-milk cheese basically comes down to this: Most dairy products are boiled to kill off harmful bacteria, a process called pasteurization. Many cheesemakers maintain the process obliterates the individual flavor of the milk, the product of unique variables such as geography, diet and the cows themselves. It's the dairy equivalent of a wine's terroir, if you will.
Raw-milk cheeses are made with unpasteurized milk. Connoisseurs firmly believe they taste better.
In order to make sure all the bacteria is dead, the FDA requires that raw-milk cheeses spend 60 days aging before they can be sold. But now the FDA has decided that the 60-day rule has no scientific basis and is rethinking the whole thing. Cheesemakers worry that raw-milk cheeses will be banned altogether or that the aging minimum will be raised to 90 days, which would essentially mean that some cheeses would simply cease to exist.
The FDA isn't conducting a mere thought experiment here. Last year 46 people contracted E. coli from eating raw-milk cheeses from two separate sources. (Neither outbreak involved Morningland.)
The FDA contends that the two bacteria found in the Morningland cheeses are potentially harmful. Listeria monocytogenes causes serious infections and is particularly dangerous to pregnant women. Staphylococcus aureus can lead to food poisoning.
But Hannes says that's only half the story.
"There are eighteen different subtypes of listeria," she explains. "They're present in 75 percent of the environment. A few of those subtypes in certain amounts can be pathogenic. But the FDA has a zero-tolerance policy toward listeria. It doesn't matter what subtype it is, and it doesn't matter what the quantity is.
"Staphylococcus aureus is everywhere," Hannes continues. "Period. But the last time there was an illness in the United States associated with Staphylococcus aureus was in 1989."
Hannes believes the varieties of bacteria found in the Morningland cheeses were of the nontoxic variety, based on the fact that nobody got sick from eating them. "But," she points out, "there doesn't need to be a burden of proof for a regulatory agency."
As soon as the Missouri Department of Agriculture announced in August that it was investigating Morningland's cheese, the dairy's owners, Joseph and Denise Dixon, voluntarily issued a recall and kept the cheese under embargo, hoping they'd be able to sell it later.
It was not to be. In October the FDA sent a letter to Denise Dixon, informing her that the recalled cheese represented "an acute, life-threatening hazard to health." The Missouri State Milk Board declared that the cheese must be destroyed and that members of the board would "assist" the Dixons in taking it to a landfill.
This was no mere wheel of cheese. The Dixons estimate that they recalled about 50,000 pounds, valued at $250,000.
"Morningland has been producing raw aged cheese for 30 years, and in that time, absolutely no reports of illness have been made by anyone who has consumed our product," Denise Dixon said in a statement at the time. "We are, and remain, wholly committed to providing good, healthful food to our customers. The order to destroy 50,000 or so pounds of our cheese is not associated with even one complaint of illness, and we believe it's an over-reaction at best."
The Dixons requested that the milk board conduct an inspection before they carried out the destruction order. The board refused, and the case went to court. The Dixons lost, though they continue to maintain that no one has ever been harmed by eating their cheese.
Morningland is out of the cheese business for good. Joseph Dixon has taken a job out of state as an electrician, his job before he and Denise bought the dairy four years ago. Morningland continues to produce milk, which it sells to commercial groceries. After figuring in costs, the dairy earns about $15 per 100 gallons, barely enough to sustain itself.
"The FDA wants to stop raw dairy," Hannes says bluntly. "The head of its plant and dairy division, John Sheehan, testified in a hearing on allowing raw milk to be sold in Maryland that raw dairy is inherently dangerous and should never be consumed by anyone under any circumstances."
No one from the American Cheese Society, a trade organization for artisan cheesemakers, was available for comment when Gut Check gave them a ring, but in a public statement on safe cheesemaking issued last November the group asserted that "[c]heese is routinely produced safely from raw milk and from pasteurized milk." The society also encourages its members to follow food-safety guidelines and comply with regulatory standards.
But its chairman, David Gremmels, who co-owns of the Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon, spoke to the New York Times last month.
"Raw milk cheese is here to stay," he said. "It's vital that we all accept milk testing, environmental testing and product testing to assure that the cheeses in distribution are safe."