Britain's finest cheeses threatened by raw milk ban

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THE future of small dairy farms across the country is in jeopardy this week as they face a Government ban on unpasteurised milk.

Popular speciality cheeses, such as Bonchester, Tornegus, Montgomery Cheddar and Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire, are also threatened by the move, which will infuriate lovers of fine cheese.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Agriculture Food and Fisheries is expected to ignore the entreaties of the small farmer and stop the flow of untreated or "raw" milk due to concern about the presence of harmful bacteria.

MAFF claims its proposed crackdown, which comes after heated public consultation, will not affect cheese-making and is necessary because of levels of contamination. "For some years, we have been advised that milk direct from the cow can be dangerous to young children and can even inflict liver damage," a ministry spokesman said. The e. coli pathogen, for example, responsible for serious food-poisoning cases, is killed by pasteurisation.

But cheese-lovers argue that any hygiene-conscious dairy can easily avoid the problem without resorting to heat-treatment. "On the Continent, a ban like this would be unthinkable," said Sir Julian Rose, chairman of the Association of Unpasteurised Milk Producers and Consumers. "In France, you can go into any supermarket and buy a bottle."

The rich, complex taste of unpasteurised milk is considered essential in the production of some of Britain's most popular gourmet cheeses. "I personally would not handle pasteurised milk and I know many other cheesemakers that would not either," said James Aldridge, who developed the Surrey cheese, Tornegus. "Most people are in this industry because they love cheese - they will just go out of business."

He believes there is no scientific basis to MAFF's allegations and that moves against drinking milk will be followed by a stand against unpasteurised cheese.

In one of Britain's leading cheese shops, Paxton and Whitfield in London, manager Richard Cooper agreed that pasteurisation is irrelevant to consumer health now tuberculosis has been largely eradicated.

"Like any food, cheese can be become infected during the handling and storage process - but this has got nothing to do with pasteurisation. More than two thirds of the cheeses we have in stock are unpasteurised. And the taste difference is always there."

The cheese market has undergone a renaissance in the past 10 years. Many supermarkets now stock local unpasteurised products and they report that demand has steadily increased.

A spokeswoman for Waitrose said: "We sell 12 different types of unpasteurised cheese at the moment and are very happy to do so. While we are committed to the safety and healthiness of our products, we do want to protect our customers' choice."

Section 2, Comment, page 5