The potentially harmful bacteria in raw milk usually don't survive the cheese-making process when the cheese is properly cured. FDA standards of identity for cheeses in which raw milk is permitted require that it be heated and the cheese be cured for at least 60 days at no lower than 35 degrees.
Nevertheless, the standards for many cheeses -- including fresh cheeses like cottage cheese -- require that they be made of pasteurized milk, according to dairy specialist Eugene McGarrahan of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
While some foreign countries allow raw milk cheeses to be produced, only those cheeses that comply with FDA requirements may be imported into this country. However, McGarrahan said, in the past year or two, the agency has received reports of people becoming ill after consuming imported French brie and camembert made from raw milk that was improperly cured. One foreign cheese firm is currently barred from shipping its products to the U.S. because of past problems, said McGarrahan.
Homemade cheeses produced from raw milk have been implicated in illnesses in the past. In 1983, for example, the Centers for Disease Control reported an outbreak in New Mexico caused by homemade cheese distributed by a small local dairy farm.
Travelers should beware of unpasteurized milk or cheeses made from raw milk, several researchers from the University of Chicago warned last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The physicians reported on six cases of human brucellosis in American high-school students who had traveled to Spain and consumed cheese made from raw goat's milk.