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Unpasteurized Cheese: Delicious But Is It Safe?

Despite the diversity in shape, size, texture and taste, for centuries the world's greatest cheeses have shared one thing: they are made with raw unpasteurized milk. Elizabeth Kaledin reports on an effort to change the world's greatest cheeses, many of which are susceptible to bacteria because they are unpasteurized.

Milk that goes straight from the cow to your table, creating flavors only nature could dream up, according to Cheese monger Steve Jenkins. "When a cow is grazing, they're eating wild garlic, wild onions, acorns and they're eating all this wonderful multitude of herbage."

But the ingredient for great cheese is also the ingredient for a looming health hazard, say health officials. Unpasteurized milk comes laden with bacteria: and though outbreaks have been only sporadic, some feel it's time for a crackdown on Camembert! Restrictions on Roquefort!

Food safety expert Mike Doyle says the problem begins with the livestock. "In the interest of safety, it would be better to totally ban the sale of pasteurized raw milk cheeses. The reason is that cows carry harmful bacteria, salmonella, listeria, and E-Coli."

To cheese lovers, just the idea of a world of all pasteurized cheese is criminal. To them it would mean the end of a great culture: the smelliest, tangiest products sanitized into bland flavorless plastic."

Max McCallum assembles the cheese board at New York's Picholine Restaurant as though he were displaying his children. To impose pasteurization, he says would make the best cheeses endangered species. "They might as well be extinct," says McCallum. "Because they would not smell or taste the same."

In five years, McCallum has not had one complaint of a stomachache here: Neither has Steve Jenkins. "Of course they're safe," says Jenkins. "They are the most glorious food in the world and there has never been a problem."

So as health officials launch investigations into the world of cheese, a clash of cultures is ripening: those concerned about food safety versus those whose passion is savory food.

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