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Is Raw Milk Cheese Really Illegal in the United States?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Raw milk and unpasteurized cheeses made from raw milk are illegal in some US states, but many allow people to buy raw milk products in one form or another. As of 2010, consumers could legally buy raw milk products in retail stores in nine states, including California, Arizona, South Carolina, Maine, and Pennsylvania. People can also buy raw milk products directly from farms or as part of a herd share agreement, but all of the products must be "fluid milk products," which doesn't include butter or most cheeses. Unpasteurized cheeses are also legal in most areas as long as they have been stored in a certain way.

Getting Unpasteurized Dairy Products

Unpasteurized cheeses are available one way or another in most areas of the US. Some people bring them in illegally from other countries, while others buy or obtain the cheeses directly from farmers. This is sometimes done through a herd share program, where the consumer purchases a "share" in a cow which goes towards feeding and boarding it, and in exchange, he or she receives products from the cow. Herd share programs are usually only allowed to sell fluid milk products though, which means that participants may only legally be permitted to get unpasteurized milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese from their animal.

Some types of harder cheeses that are unpasteurized are actually available legally in most areas as long as they've been kept under certain conditions. They must have been aged at least 60 days in an environment held at not below 35°F (1°C) — this process makes the cheese more acidic, killing most potential sources of bacterial infection. This process can be used to make harder cheeses, like Parmesan-style cheese. Farmers can generally sell cheeses like this, though in some areas they must have a manufacturing plant license.

The Debate

The debate about raw milk and unpasteurized cheese comes down to concerns about spreading disease. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) state that most raw milk products are risky to consume because they sometimes carry germs that can spread diseases like tuberculosis. Those on the other side of the debate claim that pasteurizing milk robs it of nutrients and taste. Others advocates feel that it's not the government's place to govern people's choices about what they eat.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon330158 — On Apr 14, 2013

Pasteurization of milk products was one of the biggest mistakes in human history.

People, in fact, derive their immune functions from healthy bacteria in our gut. Think about it: it's why breastfed babies are healthier. Certain cheese that have been aged have been shown to help with bacterial issues in children, same with certain yogurts- there are medical studies.

The upward trend in immune related illness seen in modern society and our children then becomes not so startling and instead inevitable. We are being denied something vital that we need. We're killing ourselves slowly.

By anon327398 — On Mar 27, 2013

I recently went to France and ate as much cheese as I could. So depressing that one cannot get a true Reblochon or Camembert in the USA.

It's a joke that unpasteurized is illegal here in the US. Someone is paying off the FDA for sure. Grocery store cheese is all garbage and the mass produced yogurts are sugar and preservative laden dead food. Really, are people dropping dead in France from eating unpasteurized cheese?

By anon307886 — On Dec 07, 2012

@JessicaLynn : I live in the UK and always read the label when buying certain cheeses. I wouldn't want to accidentally pick up a pasteurized one.

Choosing a cheese takes as much care as choosing the wine to go with it.

By JessicaLynn — On Dec 04, 2012

@eidetic: I do think it's a good idea to let people make their own choices. But let's get real. How many people would read a warning label on a container of cheese? I buy cheese all the time and I very rarely look at the labels.

By eidetic — On Dec 03, 2012

I don't think that I would want to eat unpasteurized dairy products. After all, we started pasteurizing our dairy products for a reason: to kill bacteria because people were getting sick. I would prefer not to take the risk myself.

However, I don't think raw milk and raw milk products should be illegal anywhere. Instead, they should come with a warning label and let people make their own choices.

As other posters have pointed out, we sell a lot of things legally in this country that aren't very good for you, like cigarettes and soda.

By literally45 — On Dec 02, 2012

Commercial pasteurization might kill the vitamins and other beneficial ingredients in milk like the article said.

It is much better to buy raw milk and make cheese yourself or buy raw milk cheese from a farmer you trust. Unless you are eating very fresh cheeses--soft Italian cheeses like fresh mozzarella or bocconcini that is only aged for a few days-- it's unlikely you'll have problems.

By burcidi — On Dec 02, 2012

@anamur: Pasteurization is basically heating the milk that the cheese is made from to kill the bacteria in it.

So boiling milk pasteurizes it. Aging or freezing cheese will also pasteurize the milk and make it safer for consumption.

By serenesurface — On Dec 01, 2012

Does raw milk equal unpasteurized milk?

What is pasteurization? Can raw milk become germ-free without being pasteurized?

By anon304339 — On Nov 19, 2012

Raw cheese is great! Raw dairy is great. The reason the government doesn't like it is because of money. They want us to consume pasturised dairy, which in fact, depletes calcium and then send us to doctors who prescribe drugs from their preferred pharmaceutical companies.

By anon258238 — On Mar 31, 2012

I don't see why you can't just label it and let the consumer decide for his/herself what they choose to eat.

I buy raw cream/milk now but I get it from the farmer and I know and have seen the operation so I can trust that what I am getting is a good product.

Raw cheese is a different thing since it's cultured and full of bacteria anyway, and it's not like bacteria is bad; we have 10 times more bacteria cells in our body than we do human! So if anything, we need to foster an environment within our bodies that is conducive for the bacteria that we have developed a symbiotic relationship with to flourish.

By anon190009 — On Jun 25, 2011

Thanks for this article, I will have to give it a try. The US culture is moving gradually towards embracing a less processed diet, and more people are shopping at farmer's markets and eating at restaurants which buy locally or grow many of their own ingredients.

I think the government regulations support the more "traditional" (to us) model of producing food items in bulk, shipping them all over the country, and storing them indefinitely. Cottage-industry farms and dairies are becoming more popular with consumers, although it's still a niche market for now, and people are understandably reluctant to pay sometimes as much as three times the amount for a food item as they would for a mass-produced version of the same item. Sad to say, in the US, good health is something of a luxury item.

By anon150673 — On Feb 08, 2011

In the article the writer spoke of the Food and Drug Administration restricting access to potentially unsafe food products.

Hmmm. What about all of the unsafe food products that are full of sugar, chemicals and additives? They fill our grocery shelves, yet no one fights to ban coco-puffs, or pop-tarts, and this type of "food" contributes to obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, cancer, adrenal problems, attention deficit etc. etc. Keep the F.D.A. out of our kitchens, teach people how to eat proper food again and we'll be much healthier.

By anon138452 — On Jan 01, 2011

I'm in England and I couldn't believe when I heard many countries ban unpasteurised cheeses, such as Australia and the us! What is wrong with your administration that denies you to consume proper food?

And the first comment saying it's almost like a dessert, well guess what? It's served as one often because it hasn't had its tastes and textures corrupted by heating.

By Bhutan — On Aug 10, 2010

@Suntan12- I know in Europe unpasteurized cheese is legal. I tasted some yogurt in Paris one time that was so rich and creamy. I have never been able to find any yogurt that tasted like that again. It tasted almost like a dessert.

By suntan12 — On Aug 10, 2010

@Breadcrumbs- I have never tasted unpasteurized goat cheese, but I hear it tastes incredible. I know there is a dairy called Glades Ridge Goat Dairy, in Butler Florida that sells unpasteurized goat cheese.

The way they sell it, is that they label all of their products not for human consumption, meaning that the products are okay for animals to consume.

The products are packaged as pet food. I hear that many people disregard this warning and ingest the products themselves because they say that the taste is so good. They say that the taste is really creamy because there are no preservatives.

By breadcrumbs51 — On Apr 06, 2008

It's interesting that we are so in favor or pasteurization, because while I understand that people are concerned about health, most of us Americans have never tasted "real" milk or "real" cheese - natural, the way it's supposed to be. It's definitely a very different experience.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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