Federal regulators are considering whether to tighten food safety rules for cheese made with unpasteurized milk - and the possibility has cheesemakers and foodies worried that the result will be cheese that is less tasty and not much safer.
The new proposals, which are expected in the next several months, come after a very tough year for this country's fast-growing gourmet cheese industry, marked by recalls and two multistate E. coli outbreaks that sickened nearly 50 people.
Unpasteurized milk, often called raw milk, is prized by many cheesemakers, who say that it adds a special richness of flavor.
The debate focuses on a federal rule that requires cheese made from raw milk to be aged for 60 days before it is deemed safe to eat. Raw milk has not been heated to kill harmful bacteria, a process known as pasteurization. So aging allows the chemicals in cheese, acids and salt, time to destroy harmful bacteria.
Scientists have found, however, that 60 days of aging is an overly simplistic guideline, in part because there are so many types of cheese and different ones may require different safeguards.