Say cheese

May 08, 2007

Foodies across the nation prize Chesapeake Bay soft crabs. Our locally produced wines enjoy a growing reputation, too. There's stuffed ham in Southern Maryland and beaten biscuits from the Eastern Shore. But when it comes to cheese, Maryland regulations don't allow the kind of gourmet fare that's produced in other states.

Fortunately, that's about to change.

Legislation approved by the General Assembly this year and expected to be signed into law today by Gov. Martin O'Malley will for the first time legalize a limited production of raw milk cheese in Maryland. As part of a five-year pilot project, a Talbot County dairy producer, Chapel's Country Creamery, will be permitted to make cheese from unpasteurized cow's milk. Currently, the Eastern Shore company ships its raw milk to Pennsylvania to make cheese.

That may sound like a trivial change, but for people who love cheese, it's quite a big deal. The artisan cheese movement has been sweeping the country from Vermont to California in recent years, and as any cheese aficionado will tell you, the integrity of these palate-pleasing treasures starts with milk that hasn't lost all its flavor-enhancing enzymes to high-heat pasteurization.

The federal government allows raw milk cheese to be sold if it has been aged at least 60 days under conditions that discourage harmful pathogens. Whether this type of aging is as effective as pasteurization is a matter of considerable debate among health experts. Neither process eliminates the risk of contaminated cheese entirely.

But while pregnant women are discouraged from eating it, raw milk cheese has never been connected to any serious outbreak of food-borne illnesses. Maryland is one of only six states that continue to prohibit its production, and that long-standing restriction seems downright foolish considering Maryland cheese retailers can (and do) sell out-of-state raw milk cheese, just not any made within the state's borders.

In theory, artisan cheese is a good match for Maryland's shrinking dairy industry, which is relatively small (just 627 producers, with herds averaging under 200 cows) but close to consumers. Keeping these dairy farms economically viable means about 200,000 acres remains in green pasture rather than sprouting townhouses or shopping centers. That would be a wholesome byproduct for the environment.

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