WASHINGTON, Feb. 8, 2016 – FDA is taking another look at its food safety testing program for cheese made with raw milk, after cheesemakers raised concerns that the criteria the agency is using may be limiting production of those cheeses without benefiting public health.

FDA has been testing such cheese – think of a nice gooey Camembert  for the presence of non-toxigenic E. coli, which the agency noted “has long been used by FDA and other public health agencies in the U.S. and other countries to indicate fecal contamination.” The presence of such bacteria above a certain level could indicate unsanitary conditions in a processing plant, the agency said in an update for constituents.

However, “Our surveillance shows that the vast majority of domestic and imported raw milk cheeses are meeting the established criteria,” FDA said in a release. Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria.

FDA says it now will re-evaluate its criteria for the oversight framework of food production provided by the 2011 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The Preventive Controls for Human Food rule mandated by FSMA, which became final in September, requires that food producers identify hazards in their product and operations and put controls in place to prevent or minimize those hazards.

In addition, with the FSMA preventive controls rule now final, FDA said it will be taking another look at what role non-toxigenic E. coli should have in identifying and preventing insanitary conditions and food safety hazards for both domestic and foreign cheese producers.

The FDA will also consider and update, as appropriate, the 2010 Compliance Policy Guide, which outlines safety criteria. The agency said any changes will be “informed by our engagement with stakeholders and experts on such issues as the use of a single bacterial criterion for both pasteurized and raw milk cheese, and the use of non-toxigenic E. coli as an indicator organism.”

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The agency said it will continue to inspect cheese-making facilities and test for pathogens in domestic and imported cheese but, in the meantime, FDA is pausing its testing program for non-toxigenic E. coli in cheese. FDA said it will also continue working with all stakeholders to benefit from their expertise about safe cheese-making practices and achieve the mutual goal of food safety.

Pasteurization – heating milk to high temperatures  kills not only potentially harmful bacteria, but supporters of raw milk cheese say the process also can snuff out other bacteria that can infuse cheese with distinctive, natural flavors.

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