Is Listeria Lurking in Your Camembert?

A new risk assessment from the FDA sets its sights on soft, raw-milk cheeses. But are they really that dangerous to eat?

Raw milk cheese

Raw milk cheeses have a bloomy rind, and a soft, spreadable texture (that may be harboring death). (Photo: Pascal Preti/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Cheese lovers, brace yourselves: The U.S. Food & Drug Administration may be trying to get between you and your beloved camembert. Why? Well, if that gooey, delicious mound of bliss you just slathered on a piece of warm, crusty bread happened to get its start in a batch of raw milk, your risk of listeriosis could be up to 160 times higher than if it was made from pasteurized milk.

That’s according to a risk assessment done by the FDA and their counterparts in Canada. But the draft report—open for comments until April 29—has plenty in the cheese industry worried.

“Our biggest concern is where is this [report] going. When you do a risk assessment, something will come of it. We want to be included in the conversation,” says Nora Weiser, executive director of the American Cheese Society, a trade organization that represents artisan, farmstead and specialty cheesemakers.

Even the FDA’s own estimates on illness have many scratching their heads, wondering why the agency chose to focus on this niche product in the first place.

“In the U.S., the FDA estimates that there is one case of listeriosis linked to raw-milk cheese for every 55 million servings eaten. For pasteurized soft cheese, that ratio is one listeriosis case for every 8.64 billion servings,” writes James Andrews for Food Safety News.

Of course, no one is suggesting that listeria isn’t serious. According to the FDA report, the pathogen has one of the highest hospitalization rates—and one of the highest case fatality rates—among foodborne diseases. It’s scary to be sure.

(*Note: TakePart did reach out to the FDA to find out just why a risk assessment was conducted on soft-ripened cheeses, but we're still waiting for a response, and will update this post when we hear back.)

The drive behind the risk assessment may be the Food Safety Modernization Act, which gave the FDA new authority to regulate foods for safety. But according to a report issued in March by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, pound-for-pound, dairy is among the safest foods to eat.

“When adjusted for consumption, it is seafood that presents the greatest risk of illness, causing almost 20 times as much disease as fruit and dairy,” according to a statement put out by the CSPI. But the group adds that when you include raw-milk cheese in the conversation, it’s a different story.

“Illnesses related to dairy actually reached their highest point in 2010, the last year of the study period. CSPI says the increased availability of raw, unpasteurized milk and cheese may account for this; these products are inherently hazardous and should not be consumed at all.”

It’s worth noting, however, that the spike in illness in the CSPI report was caused by the pathogen Campylobacter in pasteurized milk—not raw milk cheeses.

“It doesn’t make a huge amount of sense to focus on a small product category that isn’t in the highest risk category,” Weiser tells TakePart. “We want clarification of what lead to this risk assessment in the first place, and we will be asking in our comments, which will be submitted by the end of this week.”

Cheesemonger Matthew Jennings of Farmstead, Inc. in Providence, Rhode Island, says he’s worried that the possibility of new and overly onerous codes will be devastating to the country’s small cheese producers. And he’s concerned that cherished soft-ripened cheeses like Jasper Hill Farm’s Winnemere or Uplands’ Rush Creek Reserve will be regulated into extinction simply because they start with a batch of raw milk.

“The witch hunt that goes on to blame the small artisan producer for higher rates of things like listeria is ridiculous. It will wean out the small producers. Instead we need a proactive approach where the government has a liaison for small producers. That would be a much better approach instead of coming down as this shadowed hand and wiping everyone out,” he says.  “It’s really unfortunate this is the direction that we’re going.”

UPDATE 4/22: The FDA responded to our inquiry with the following statement: 

Listeria remains a public health risk particularly for vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, the elderly, and the immune-compromised.  Risk-assessments are appropriate for all products that present risk, and this is the latest one we have completed.  This risk assessment evaluates the effectiveness of various mitigation measures in reducing the risk posed by L. monocytogenes in soft-ripened cheese.  The final results of this risk assessment and an ongoing risk profile will inform the risk managers at the US FDA of the most appropriate changes necessary to reduce the risk of illness from soft-ripened cheese consumption.  Releasing the risk assessment is only the first step in this regulatory process that provides multiple opportunities for stakeholders and interested parties to comment before any changes are made to existing guidances and/or regulations.

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