Raw milk cheese is made with milk that has not been pasteurized, and is considered by some medical professionals to carry health risks not associated with pasteurized cheeses. There is a great deal of debate over raw milk cheese and its relative dangers, although the general consensus is that it should be avoided by pregnant women and the immunodeficient. This cheese is believed to be dangerous because it carries a higher risk of bacterial infection than pasteurized milk cheeses, especially if handled badly.
When milk is pasteurized, it is heated to a high temperature and held there for a set amount of time to kill harmful bacteria such as Listeria, E. Coli, campylobacter, salmonella, and others. Pasteurized milk is not technically sterile; it simply carries less potential bacterial risk than raw milk does. All fresh and moisture-rich cheeses in the United States are made with pasteurized milk due to concerns about infection. It is still possible for pasteurized milk to become contaminated, however, and like any food product it should be handled carefully and kept under proper refrigeration.
Raw milk cheese is more likely to harbor harmful bacteria, because the bacteria are never killed via a pasteurization process. As a result, if the milk becomes contaminated with any bacteria during the milking or cheese making process, that bacteria will present in the final product. Consumers would then be exposed to bacteria which could cause anything from mild stomach distress to death. For this reason, many countries including the United States restrict the sale of raw milk cheese, out of public health concerns.
There is a long culinary tradition of raw milk cheese, and some consumers feel that it is superior to pasteurized cheese. For this reason, they seek out cheeses made with raw milk, willing to take the risk of bacterial infection in the pursuit of culinary pleasure. As cheese ages, it becomes more acidic, meaning that raw milk cheese which is older is much safer to eat. Some organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration feel that flavor is not worth the health risk, and do not condone the consumption of raw milk dairy products.
Ultimately, the raw milk versus pasteurized milk cheese debate is about infection and contamination control. Major outbreaks of food borne illness can be carried by pasteurized milk which has been contaminated by the manufacturing process just as easily as they can by raw milk. In general, milk and cheese products should be handled with care, and discarded if they look, smell, or taste “off” to the consumer.
Pasteurization is only one part of infection control, and a dairy which is kept clean and sterile should produce healthy milk. If cows are allowed to roam, kept clean, and given appropriate veterinary care, they will also be less likely to carry potentially harmful bacteria to pass on to consumers. When purchasing raw milk cheese, it is an excellent idea to go to the source so that you can inspect the conditions for cleanliness personally before buying the cheese product. Any reputable dairy is delighted to show guests around their facility, demonstrating the steps taken to reduce the risk of bacterially contaminated milk.