Has there been a serious jump in illnesses from raw-milk cheese recently? You might think so if you've read recent major pieces in The New York Times and The Washington Post -- or the study put together by product liability law firm Marler Clark, which documented 54 illnesses attributed to raw milk cheese in 2010.
The FDA is certainly concerned. It has been considering significantly tightening the rule that allows producers to sell unpasteurized cheeses to the public, so long as they have been aged 60 days. Major changes to the 60-day rule could severely damage the growing artisanal cheese industry, some of whose products command $20 to $25 a pound.
What none of these sources discussed is how the illnesses attributed to raw milk cheese last year compared to other years. The 60-day aging rule for raw milk cheese has been in effect since 1949, partially in response to outbreaks of typhoid attributed to raw milk cheese. All of which prompts this question: Have illnesses from raw milk cheeses been a serious public health problem since then?
Since none of the articles or the Marler Clark study addressed that question, I decided to do some searching through the data. I examined the data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from 1973 throgh 2008 -- a period of 36 years. For data covering 1998-2008, I used the online CDC database on foodborne illnesses, and scrolled through all the reported illnesses year by year, beginning in 1998 (the first year covered) looking for those attributed to unpasteurized and pasteurized milk cheeses. I didn't count those attributed to queso fresca, a soft cheese that isn't aged and thus isn't legal under FDA regulations.