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Inside Our Food

Cheese; to pasteurise or not to pasteurise?

Since its discovery in the nineteenth century, the process of pasteurisation has helped preserve food and made it safe to eat for longer.

Pasteurisation is now widely used for dairy products, but it all began when Napoleon III hired French chemist, Louis Pasteur, to save France’s wine industry from a microbe that would turn wine to vinegar.1 Pasteur discovered that heating foods and drinks to a certain temperature kills unwanted microbes, so it was through this process that he was able to preserve the wine.

The shift to cheesemaking

It was only later towards the turn of the twentieth century, that the process was rediscovered by the dairy industry. Tuberculosis, as well as scarlet fever and anthrax, were spreading through contaminated milk, and when scientists realised that heat could kill TB bacteria, governments supported the practice.1

However, with the more widespread adoption of pasteurisation across Europe in the 1930s,1 dairy farmers and cheesemakers quickly grew opposed to the process due to how it changed the taste of their products.2 They argued that while pasteurisation may be safer, raw milk has unique, earthy, flavour-inducing microbes that are killed when milk is exposed to heat.3

Due to hygiene standards, raw milk cheeses are becoming more and more rare. There is a myriad of regulations on raw milk cheese, making pasteurisation a complex topic of discussion in Europe. On the surface, it appears that requirements are so strict and rigorous that it would be hard for small raw milk product producers to meet them. Here are some of the arguments for and against.

Defence of raw milk

In France

Though it was a French scientist who discovered pasteurisation, French cheesemakers constitute a bulk of the group protesting the adoption of pasteurisation in their industry, and understandably so for a country where cheese is so ingrained in its history and culture.2 Estimates figure that France is home to at least 350-400 cheese varieties with possibly 1,000 sub-varieties, many of which are from raw milk.4

Despite this, raw milk cheeses now constitute just 10% of the market in France, compared with 100% 70 years ago.2 However, the debate continues, with Comté a prime example of how unpasteurised cheese is still going strong in some areas.

Comté is a raw milk cheese from eastern France, and around 40,000 tonnes are produced annually,5 making it one of the most popular French cheeses. It is often characterised by its roasted-nut aroma and sweet finish and is versatile in terms of how it can be enjoyed.

It was one of the first cheeses to receive an AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) or controlled designation of origin label, which is a certificate that protects the local rights of production when it comes to food.6 The cheese is quite loved around the world as much as it is in France,5 and this protection shows it.

In Belgium

Raw milk cheeses are similarly defended in Belgium. Originating from the southern Wallonia region of Belgium, Herve cheese for instance has been around since the 16th century.7 First offered to the military commanders of passing troops by the Duke of Limburg, the cheese remains a symbol of regional pride in the province of Liège.

Locals continue to defend the raw milk cheese from attacks from the AFSCA, the Belgian agency controlling food safety.8 In 2015, when AFSCA forced the closing of one of the two remaining old-school producers of Herve, Belgians protested via successful petitions, impassioned Facebook groups, assertive blogs and even a committee supporting producers during inspections.8



Opposition to raw milk

However, there are, of course, reasons why pasteurisation has become so widespread.

Nutrition and costs

Firstly, despite claims that pasteurising milk destroys important vitamins, its effect is in fact relatively negligible in that regard. Pasteurisation does remove some of the nutrients that can be found in raw milk, such as vitamin B1,9 but in the grand scheme of things, even with the decrease, pasteurised milk effectively has the same nutritional value, which is relatively low to begin with.10

And it can be seen as a price worth paying. For one, commercially speaking, pasteurisation increases the shelf life of dairy products from a few days to more than two weeks.11 The relief on food waste that difference makes is not to be underestimated.

Disease and health

And most importantly, the biggest defence for pasteurising is that it eliminates pathogens and disease.12 Bacteria love our food as much as we do, it’s the reason we cook so many of our meals - to make sure it’s only us that’s doing the eating. It’s not to be underestimated how big the health risk of raw milk was prior to the widespread application of pasteurisation. Here are some key examples to show this.

The first originates in nineteenth-century New York. During the 1850s, the city was going through a major urbanisation process, with populations increasing at an almost unsustainable rate. Such an increase can result in a lessening of conditions in cities, and this was sadly shown in that less than half of children reached their fifth birthday, and contaminated milk was the biggest reason for this tragic fact.13 However, with the introduction of pasteurisation in New York and across the US over the course of 25 years, hundreds of thousands of lives were saved.

We may have moved on from these sorts of conditions in much of today’s society, but the second example is just as relevant today as it would have been back then. Pasteurisation can kill off a very dangerous bacteria Listeria. This nasty microbe can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth and premature delivery if consumed by pregnant women and soft cheeses made from raw milk are estimated to be 50 to 160 times more likely to cause a Listeria infection than pasteurised cheeses.14

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  3. Comté. Cheesedotcom. Accessed 15th July 2018.
  4. Difford, S. Appellation d’origine controlee (AOC). Difford’s Guide – For Discerning Drinkers. Accessed 15th July 2018.
  5. Raw milk Herve. Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. Accessed 15th July 2018.
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  7. MacDonald, L. E. et al. (2011). A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of pasteurization on milk vitamins, and evidence for raw milk consumption and other health-related outcomes. J Food Prot. Accessed 4th October 2018.
  8. Andersson, I. & Öste, R. (1994). Nutritional quality of pasteurized milk. Vitamin B12, folate and ascorbic acid content during storage. International Dairy Journal. Accessed 4th October 2018.
  9. Pasteurized versus ultra-pasteurized milk - Why such long sell-by dates? Cornell University – Dairy Foods. Science Notes. Accessed 4th October 2018.
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  11. Stone, J. J. (2015). Pasteurization is the biggest food science breakthrough we never think about. kitchn. Accessed 31st August 2018.
  12. Listeria (Listeriosis). Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 31st August 2018.
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