FDA Releases Soft-Ripened Cheese Risk Assessment

On Monday February 11th, the  FDA released its Draft Joint Quantitative Assessment of the Risk of Listeriosis From Soft Ripened Cheese Consumption in the US and Canada. (Download the full 175 page document here - scroll down to the category heading "listeria."). The document, jointly produced by the FDA and Health Canada, seeks to quantify the public health risk for listeria monocytogenes, a known bacterial pathogen that has been found to occur in a variety of food products including cheese. Listeria and soft ripened cheeses are the focus of the report, because 1) data shows listeria has been the most frequently occurring pathogen found in cheese and thus poses the most significant public health risk and 2) fresh and soft ripened cheeses are particularly susceptible to listeria contamination. According to the report, from 1986 to 2008 (a period of 22 years) there were 137 cheese recalls, 108 of which were listeria related. The incidence rate during the same period was similar in Canada.

Meanwhile, at the same time this report is being released, there is an ongoing listeriosis outbreak in Australia. At least 26 people have been sickened by eating soft-ripened cheese made by Jindi Cheese Co. Three people have died so far (more on the Australian outbreak here and here).

[update: I originally mentioned the Australia outbreak here a bit lazily, because it was/is happening at the same time as this FDA document was issued. But as Matt Briggs of Cheese Notes has since pointed out to me, the coincidence is not really the story here. Australia's raw milk laws are notoriously strict... and the cheese being blamed for the recent deaths was apparently made with pasteurized milk. It might also be worth noting that Jindi Cheese Co., the company whose cheeses have sparked the recall in Australia, is owned by France-based Lactalis. We're not talking about artisan-scale production in that particular case.]

The FDA/Health Canada Risk Assessment injects quantifiable data and statistical analysis into the ongoing broader cultural and industry discussion of the safety of raw milk cheeses. While I am far from qualified to weigh in on the value of the analysis, I think it's fair to say that overall the effort is a good thing. But the results of this risk assessment do not reflect well on raw milk soft ripened cheeses....the report estimates the risk of listeriosis from soft-ripened cheeses made with raw milk at as much as 160 times higher than that from soft-ripened cheese made with pasteurized milk.

At the end of the pre-release announcement (issued Friday Feb. 8th), the FDA offered the purpose for conducting the risk assessment exercise:

When finalized, FDA intends to use this risk assessment (which is limited to one pathogen in one type of cheese), along with other information and scientific assessments that more comprehensively consider the different pathogens that can be present in all types of cheeses made from raw milk, in its reevaluation of the existing 60-day aging requirements for cheeses made with raw milk (e.g., 21 CFR 133.182(a)).

It almost goes without saying that this document portends significant changes to the present regulatory scheme covering cheesemaking in the US. What those changes will eventually look like remains to be seen.

See the formal Federal Register announcement here, including instructions for submitting comments to the draft report. Comments must be received by April 29, 2013.