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Cheese important to Indiana dairymen

When consumers browse the cheese aisle at grocery stores, they see a popular and versatile dairy product that can be enjoyed in different ways, from grilled between two slices of bread to topping off a salad.

But there’s another side to cheese than simply Swiss vs. provolone, or shredded vs. sliced. Consumers should know more about the aging process that takes place before the product reaches a grocer’s shelf.

Flavor is a main reason cheese is aged, says Haley Oliver, Purdue University assistant professor of food science.

Key Points

Cheesemaking is important to Indiana’s dairy industry.

Aging adds flavor to cheeses and increases their overall food safety.

The process of aging also adds nutritional value and aids digestibility.


“It will change the flavor profile as microorganisms use food for their own use and break it down into lactose and casein,” Oliver says. “The longer it ages, the more sugars and proteins break down, and you have different flavors.”

Flavor isn’t the only reason to age cheese. Aging also aids in increasing overall safety. Raw-milk cheeses must age for 60 days before being sold in the United States, Oliver says.

Safety factor

“That gives organisms enough time to reduce water in that cheese to a level that won’t support growth of bacteria that can cause disease,” Oliver says.

A raw-milk cheese is typically a hard cheese, not American singles on top of hamburgers. A famous example of a raw-milk cheese is Parmigiano-Reggiano.

In addition to aging raw-milk cheeses for 60 days, cheese producers must follow other food safety guidelines.

A high-moisture cheese, like fresh mozzaralla, must be made with pasteurized milk and then test pathogen-free, Oliver says. Milk is the most regulated commodity in the United States, and because of that, cheese is also highly regulated.

“It’s very specific [regulations] depending upon the type of cheese,” Oliver says.

Nutrition factor

Aging also adds nutritional value. Part of this added nutrition is digestibility.

“The more simple a food is because an organism has essentially digested those nutrients, the more easily digestible it is for us,” Oliver says. “We can extract more out of it.”

That’s why some people can eat cheese or yogurt, but not drink milk. If a person is lactose intolerant, in an aged cheese or similar dairy food, organisms have already utilized lactose.

Aging cheese is about time, temperature and water content, Oliver says. “It depends on the types of cheese, but it’s going to be a humidity and temperature-controlled environment,” she says.

Hann is a senior in Purdue University Ag Communications.

What I learned in Cheese 101

During a recent spring break, I hopped onto a plane and flew to Italy. One of the main ag tours was a Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese factory.

I was amazed by the small size of the operation. Each day the factory produces 28 wheels of cheese. Much like farming, making cheese requires a combination of manual labor and machine power.

While in liquid form, it’s in a large vat and mixed by machine. The cheese weighs 100 pounds and will make two wheels. There were some 2-year-old wheels still waiting to leave.

While I didn’t bring cheese home, I brought home knowledge of different foods and the understanding that physical size of a place doesn’t mean it isn’t big.

— Sarah Hann

How state regulates cheesemakers

The job of inspecting plants that make cheese belongs to the Indiana Board of Animal Health, notes Denise Derrer, director of communications for BOAH.

“Our authority comes from the federal law, and we enforce it in Indiana,” she explains. Inspectors check plants and machinery. Samples are analyzed for harmful bacteria in the state lab.

While issuing a recall is a complicated and time-consuming process, responsible producers typically do it themselves. Recently, Fair Oaks Dairy in Jasper County discovered problems with a couple of cheese products and took voluntary action. “They use a private lab and actually contacted us before our lab results were done,” Derrer says.

Not everyone is as cooperative. If a cheese producer balks on recall, BOAH can issue a consumer advisory about products from a specific company.

The tough part, even when the producer cooperates, is finding the source of contamination. “It may be in the plant, or it may have come in on purchased ingredients or supplies, such as cheese wheels,” Derrer says.

Certain cheeses may age up to seven years. “If you find harmful bacteria, then you could be looking at a problem that happened years ago,” she says.

The bottom line is that BOAH has adequate personnel to ensure safety of dairy products, she concludes.


02123412a.tif Vats of cheese: Or at least what’s in this vat will be cheese, once the cheesemaking process concludes.

02123412b.tif

Walls of wheels: Here are cheese wheels aging in an Italian cheese factory.

This article published in the February, 2012 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.