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The Kids are All Right

The debate heats up over raw-milk cheeses


Published November 20, 2002 at 3:31 p.m.

Even before I reach the bottom of the stairs at Lazy Lady Farms, I'm already self-conscious about the flecks of mud caking my boots, as though I'm about to contaminate the sterile field of an operating room. Inside the small, laboratory-like cheese room, the air is thick with humidity and the fecund aroma of curing cheeses -- chunky white patties resting on waxpaper-covered shelves and countertops like the proverbial pies cooling on a windowsill.

Laini Fondiller is the cheesemaker on this remote, off-the-grid organic farm in the Northeast Kingdom, just south of Westfield. She stands at a sink in a hair net and smock with her back to me, busily rinsing out large stainless-steel vats as she fields my questions. Obviously, the farm's name is tongue-in-cheek. Fondiller, 50, has been up since 5:30 a.m. and typically works until 9 p.m. -- she's anything but lazy. She stops what she's doing only once or twice to address me face-to-face, to make a point.

Two vats brimming with fresh goat's milk simmer on a stove, which she soon removes from the heat and immerses in a sink of cold water. Technically speaking, this process of pasteurization isn't necessary for making cheese. Fondiller does it grudgingly for the 10 to 20 gallons of cheese she produces a day, only because the Vermont Department of Agriculture says she must.

"Personally, I love soft, raw-milk cheeses. But they're illegal in this country," she tells me. Why? "Fuck if I know."

Fondiller's predilection for raw -- that is, non-pasteurized -- milk cheeses is understandable, considering where she learned her craft. Fresh out of college in the late 1970s, she worked on dairy farms in Massa-chusetts and Vermont before taking off on a three-year, round-the-world odyssey that eventually landed her in France. Unable to speak the language at first, Fondiller gravitated toward dairy jobs -- one on a large, 250-goat operation, another on a small family farm where the elderly grandmother would put the cheese cultures directly into the pail before milking the goats.

One day, while thumbing through a French agricultural magazine, Fondiller came across a want ad for a cheese plant in Corsica. She jumped at the opportunity. There she learned the alchemy of cheesemaking and how just four elements -- time, temperature, cultures and rennet (the lining of a calf's stomach) -- can produce 300 or more varieties of cheese. As she puts it, "Back here [in Vermont] in 1980, it was all just cheddar or muenster."

Fondiller recalls the time she was working alone in the French Alps as a shepherd. An old man who delivered her meals once a week introduced her to a hard cheese he ripened by burying it in straw over the winter and pulling it out in the spring. "I was sitting at my table in the cabin once and I was eating the cheese and said, 'God! This rind looks like it's moving!'" she relates. Upon closer inspection, Fondiller discovered the rind was crawling with tiny insects that, she later learned, were part of the aging process.

In 1984, Fondiller was kicked out of France for working without papers. She returned to Vermont, where she met her future partner, Barry Shaw. He let her farm a few acres of his land in Westfield and raise some goats and sheep. Soon she was milking a small herd of goats and producing raw-milk cheeses right out of their kitchen -- soft, semi-ripened varieties with a strong, "goaty" flavor. Their names reflected their Old World heritage: La Roche, Valancay, Les Pyramids, Chevre Au Lait, Capriola.

Fondiller developed a small but loyal clientele at the farmers' market in Montpelier. Then, in 1993, dairy inspectors from the Vermont Department of Agriculture informed her she would have to build a separate cheesemaking room to pasteurize the milk, or they'd shut her down. Fondiller bristled at the notion and began a high-profile battle with the state. Despite the help of a pro bono attorney and the farm advocacy group, Rural Vermont, she was eventually forced to comply. Under Vermont law, a raw-milk cheese cannot be sold to the public unless it's aged at least 60 days.

"Where'd they get that number, a dart board?" scoffs Fondiller, who theorizes that the standard is based on the minimum time needed to age cheddar, one of the most popular cheeses sold in the United States.

Fondiller pauses briefly from her work to point out a speckled, brie-like patty. "See that? That's cranberries and cream, my new holiday cheese," she explains. "How can I possibly take that to 60 days? That thing's gonna ripen like a bastard in two weeks."

But how safe would it be if it were made from raw milk? Her answer sounds almost like a challenge: Test it after two weeks and see for yourself.

To many people, the benefits of pasteurizing milk are as presupposed as getting a rubella vaccine or washing your hands after using the toilet. In fact, the debate over raw-milk products has simmered quietly for years. Aside from the odd Luddite or back-to-nature types, proponents of raw milk have included some dairy farmers, small cheese producers and even some dietary experts, who argue that raw milk is healthier because its vitamins, minerals, proteins and other natural antigens haven't been altered or destroyed in the pasteurization process. They point out that raw milk contains lipase, an enzyme necessary for digesting dairy products, without which some people become lactose-intolerant.

Pasteurization of milk became widespread in the United States in the mid-1930s, when American dairy farmers discovered that it lengthened milk's shelf life, enabling them to store their product longer and transport it to more distant markets. It was also around this time, say raw-milk advocates, that non-pasteurized milk was stigmatized. Today, some experts claim that those bacteria may actually prevent certain diseases, including some types of cancer.

Nevertheless, opposition to the sale of raw-milk products remains steadfast. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warn that raw milk can contain pathogens such as listeria, salmonella, yersiniosis, certain strains of E. coli and others, and recommend that pregnant women and anyone with compromised immune systems avoid them. The CDC also blames several outbreaks of food-borne illnesses over the years on raw-milk cheese consumption, particularly soft, Mexican-style cheeses.

In Vermont, raw-milk cheeses must be aged at least 60 days at a temperature no lower than 35 degrees F. Though that standard was based on the aging requirement for cheddars, as Fondiller suggests, it has more to do with achieving the proper pH levels to kill off bacteria. Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is looking into whether 60 days is even sufficient for preventing illness.

"As a food microbiologist, I think the risks of raw-milk consumption really outweigh the benefits," says Dr. Catherine Donnelly at the University of Vermont. She points out that while those who grew up on a farm and have functional immune systems might be OK, some of the new pathogens emerging in the food supply today are dangerous enough to permanently shut down kidney functions in young children and the elderly, or can even cause death.

Still, folks like Fondiller say the demonization of raw milk is less about legitimate health concerns than about marketing -- fueled by years of propaganda, germ phobias and the interests of large food processors who have resisted labeling standards for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), bovine growth hormones and the like.

"Can you get sick from chicken? Can you get sick from beef? Can you get sick from pork? Yes!" asserts Fondiller, with the exasperation of someone who has engaged in this argument countless times. Her argument sounds simple: If you want healthy food, start with healthy animals. "You can't have good milk and crappy goats," she says. "It can't happen."

Fondiller argues that consumers should be allowed to decide for themselves which foods are safer. "All I want is a separate label. I will put a skull and crossbones on it if you want, I don't care," she says. "Just a label that says 'raw milk cheese.'" And with a new administration starting in January, Fondiller plans to take her fight back to the Vermont Legislature.

When her work in the cheese room is complete, Fondiller leads me behind the farmhouse to a small, concrete bunker dug into a hillside. We enter a cave with an arched ceiling that resembles the old stone caves used for centuries by European cheesemakers. This one, however, powered by solar panels, keeps a constant 94-percent humidity and maintains a natural temperature range of 48 to 55 degrees F. Here, the cheeses are left to their own devices.

As we enter, Fondiller sprinkles a thin layer of lime on the floor but informs me that, aside from washing the racks and giving the cave a good sweeping every now and then, much more cleaning is unnecessary and can even be harmful. Once, shortly after Shaw built the cave, she made the mistake of giving the walls a thorough scrubbing. The results were disastrous. She had inadvertently killed off most of the natural molds necessary for curing the cheeses. "Clorox will never touch these walls again," she informs me. Apparently, even in food production it's possible to be too clean.