Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

From the Stable to the Table—What Do We Eat When We Eat Raw-Milk Cheese?

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By Lena Thurn and Maria Fixemer

The question of which cheese to buy is not simply a question about what to eat for lunch—at least not for the US cultural anthropologist Heather Paxson and other so-called post-Pasteurians who set a specific value on their food. Post-Pasteurians don’t believe that pasteurization—which means to heat treat raw milk in order to kill all the microorganisms, the good and the bad, that naturally live inside milk—necessarily enhances the quality of food. For them, the Pasteurian age—and Paxson claims that US citizens in general still live in a Pasteurian world—is the industrial age of sterilizing everything in order to avoid potential “biohazards” and legal vulnerability, while accepting the loss of all the healthy, naturally occurring microbes and germs. Pasteurization is the simple option for ministries and health departments, which is why specific rules on milk products exist. In the USA, these rules are slightly stricter[1] than in the EU—which proves that raw-milk cheese plays a specific role in the cultural traditions surrounding food in countries like France, Switzerland, or Germany, where raw-milk products only have to be labeled. Still, the question of whether to buy raw-milk cheese or not also exists in Europe. It is a question that ranges between two contrasting poles: safety and freedom. And this, in turn, makes the question about the cheese a genuine political question. Drawing on Foucault’s “biopolitics”[2], Paxson refers in her articles on raw-milk cheese to “microbiopolitics.”

fixemer_thurn_Raw-milk products. A microbial farm (2)

Raw-milk products—a microbial farm. Photo: Lena Thurm.

The destiny of microbes in pasteurized cheeses is clear: they fall victim to an extensive clean-up operation. But the advantage of this process is also clear: pasteurized cheese is clean. It is free from human pathogens like Salmonella, Listeria (which in particular poses a dangerous risk to unborn babies), and Escherichia coli (some of these bacteria are better known as the cause of the EHEC virus). Health departments find unambiguous words to advise people with weakened immune systems and pregnant women to eat only products made from pasteurized milk. Paxson, however, criticizes, from a feminist point of view, this intimidation of pregnant women and the interference of health departments and medical professionals in people’s personal lives—and she certainly has a point. Dangerous or pathogenic microbes in raw-milk cheese are extremely rare and can be avoided through proper hygiene, which starts in the stable and ends on the table. Cheese makers know that producing cheese means cleaning and washing up again and again and again. Apart from that, raw-milk cheese has its benefits.

Paxson also points out the importance of microbes: they’re not only important for special types of food production (cheese, beer, or wine), they’re important for almost everything: evolution, ecology, and medicine. Microbes live everywhere—for example, 90 percent of cells in a human body are microbial[3]—and their importance in certain biological processes can’t be denied. Life itself is unthinkable without microorganisms. Therefore it’s the link to life that makes raw-milk cheese with all its working microbes into a special good for post-Pasteurians or people who don’t want to eat dead, homogenous, mainstream food. They want to eat cheese that is “alive,” that is the specific product of its own particular production process: the product that could only be produced at that place, from this producer, with milk from these cows or goats or sheep that ate this weed or this hay.

fixemer_thurn_The workers we're able to see.JPG

Some of the workers who contribute to making raw-milk cheese—at least, some of the ones we are able to see! Photo: Lena Thurm.

Both of the authors of this blog post have produced raw-milk cheese themselves. While Maria worked on a small goat farm in France, Lena hand milked goats in Switzerland and sheep in Bavaria—both on an alpine pasture. From our own experience, we can say that there is and should be differences in cheese. Even the day of production—whether the weather was sunny or rainy, whether the cattle ate this herb or that—plays a role in the taste of the cheese because there are different microbes working. You will never produce the same sort of cheese at two different farms. For Paxson the case is clear: microbes produce specificity and locality. She states, “Once cheese is recognized and valued as a living organism or microcosmic farm—once it becomes a microbiopolitical object—care of the cheese, care of the animals, care of the land, and care of the consuming self all must consider the microbe.”[4]

fixemer_thurn_The makro-farm. A mountain pasture in the bavarian alps

The macro-farm—a mountain pasture in the Bavarian Alps. Photo: Lena Thurm.

The truth is, however, that raw-milk cheese is not only a (microbio)political issue; it is also a matter of trust between the cheese maker and the cheese consumer (whether pregnant or not). Raw-milk cheese has to do with responsibility and morality: The ones who are producing and selling cheese, on the one hand, must be aware of their own responsibility towards those who are going to eat the cheese and towards the whole cheese-making trade they are working for—and therefore its good reputation and their ongoing existence. The ones who buy and eat the cheese, on the other hand, have to take a leap of faith and trust the producer.


[1]        Cf. Paxson, Heather, “POST-PASTEURIAN CULTURES: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States,” Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 1 (2008): p. 16: “By U.S. law (21CFR133.182), cheese made from raw milk must be aged at least 60 days at a temperature no less than 1.7°C (35°F) before being sold or imported. The 60-day rule means to offer protection against pathogenic microbes that could thrive in the moist environment of a soft cheese.” Article available online at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1548-1360.2008.00002.x/full.

[2]     “Biopolitics” according to Foucault means “the fashioning of new categories of persons to facilitate the statistical measurement and rational management of populations, largely via sex and reproduction” (Paxson, p. 16). Cf. Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1., trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1978).

[3]     Cf. Paxson, p. 38f., and Gill, Steven R. et. al.: “Metagenomic Analysis of the Human Distal Gut Microbiome,” Science 312 (2006): 1355–1359. Article available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3027896/.

[4]     Cf. Paxson, p. 39.

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