Unpasteurised cheeses a step closer

Last updated 15:03 23/05/2009

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Former beer baron Douglas Myers – currently resident in England, where he can snack on all the unpasteurised cheeses his $705 million fortune can buy – may soon find home a more palatable country.

Before he quit New Zealand, the former Lion Nation boss unsuccessfully fought bureaucrats over requirements for cheeses to only be made from pasteurised milk, saying raw milk cheese tasted better.

Now, a decade or so later, the nation's food safety experts look like rolling over on the issue and allowing the sale of some locally-made unpasteurised milk cheeses.

Cheese aficionados claim that heating and pasteurising milk destroys the cheese's flavour-giving bacteria.

They argue the dangerous bacteria such as listeria which can live in any soft cheeses, including those that are pasteurised.

But until now pasteurisation has been held up as the nation's chief bulwark against pathogens such as not only listeria monocytogenes, but E.coli, Salmonella, and Coxiella burnetii, and Mycobacterium bovis.

The Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) has announced proposed new rules which would allow the production, sale, export and import of unpasteurised milk products that have an acceptable bacterial safety level.

NZFSA technical standards and systems assistant director Scott Crerar said that at present only a few cheeses made from unpasteurised milk are imported and sold.

"Many local manufacturers support the plan to address inconsistencies in the law that allow some raw milk cheeses made overseas to be imported while domestic manufacturers may not make their own equivalent products," said Mr Crerar.

But vulnerable consumers – such as babies and toddlers under three, the frail elderly, expectant mothers and people with weakened immune systems – will have to avoid eating unpasteurised cheese.

The authority has divided unpasteurised milk products into three different categories of risk.

Extra-hard grating, Parmesan-style raw milk cheeses – such as Grana Padano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Romano, Asiago and Montasio – pose low levels of risk. Small consignments of these cheeses have been shipped into New Zealand via Australia under the Trans-Tasman Mutual Recognition Agreement.

A second group of products, such as Roquefort, a soft raw milk cheese made in France, are low risk for the general population but may pose a higher risk for vulnerable consumers. Cheese-lovers have also been agitating for other raw milk cheeses such as Dutch goudas and edams and French bries and camemberts.

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But the NZFSA said that some cheeses in a third group cannot be produced from unpasteurised milk to an acceptable level of safety for the general population so will not be allowed to be produced or imported.

The proposals will be outlined at workshops planned for Auckland, Hamilton and Christchurch in June.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, and Fonterra's predecessors, have historically expressed concerns that occurrence of bacterial diseases, such as tuberculosis, in domestic dairy produce could harm overseas perceptions of exported butter and cheese.

But trade officials have in recent years argued against US claims that to be judged safe, dairy products need to be made from pasteurised milk.

New Zealanders are already allowed access raw, unpasteurised, milk: they can legally buy up to five litres at the farm gate for personal consumption.



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