When we make hard cheese, we process the curds at about 95 degrees, then we handle and press them at room temperature. Cheddar (shown above during the Cheddaring process) spends 24-48 hours at room temperature before it goes to the cave. The law requires our cave to be above 35 degrees – most caves are about 55 degrees – to accomplish the aging necessary for flavor and safety. Some cheeses, like Jarlsberg or Feta, spend a few weeks at 70 degrees for flavor development. All of this is permitted, and in some cases required, by law.
But when the cheese comes out of the cave and is packaged for sale, the law says it must be kept at a minimum of 41 degrees. If it rises above that temperature, the state inspectors can order it destroyed. How is it that the same cheese that safely ages at 55-70 degrees suddenly becomes dangerous if allowed to sit above 41 degrees? Is there a magical transformation that occurs? Our dairy inspectors just smile and shake their heads.
This week, I ran across an article by two researchers (Bishop & Smulowski, 2006) at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy research (University of Wisconsin, Madison). Their summary states, in part:
“In view of the variety and large volume of cheeses consumed throughout the world, the incidence of foodborne outbreaks associated with cheeses is extremely low. Research revealed that the inherent characteristics of most cheeses create a hostile environment for bacterial pathogens, especially at elevated ripening and storage temperatures.”
They emphasized, of course, that the cheeses must be made in a pathogen-free environment. But with that caveat, they recommended that certain hard cheeses “be exempt from refrigeration requirements during ripening, storage, shipping, and display.”
Some day, we hope the law will catch up with science.