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If you find yourself in a convention hall filled with health inspectors or food safety professionals, bring up the topic of “bathtub cheese” for an entertaining time. It is as bad as it sounds: unpasteurized cheese made in a bathtub (or any other waterproof container at home). Although it is illegal in the United States, people continue sell their homemade cheese and it’s caused a lot of issues.
Making your own cheese is not illegal, but it is a felony if you intend to sell it or even give it away. This is for good reason. The process of making cheese can easily allow for contaminants like Salmonella, E. Coli, and other food borne illnesses to grow. In a highly-controlled factory, the risk is incredibly low, but in someone’s backyard or garage… you can’t be sure. In 2011, an outbreak of more than 2,000 cases of Salmonella were attributed to homemade cheese.
The cheese could also be made in containers that aren’t safe for food use, like galvanized metal tanks. In the case of galvanized containers, things like zinc and cadmium can leach into the cheese. Cheese makers will often use whatever container they have at home, or whatever is big enough that they can pick up at their local hardware shop. Also, seeing as it is unpasteurized and in many states it is illegal to sell raw milk, how do they get the rest of the supplies?
Simply put: bribery. Makers of bathtub cheese will pay a farmer under the table for a certain amount of raw milk. The benefit is twofold for the cheese maker. One, the agitation of the milk, caused by driving it home unrefrigerated, can jump start the culturing process! Two, they will get milk at a substantially lower price, and thus be able to sell at a lower price. But don’t let the price point tempt you, this cheese is a health risk you don’t want to take.
As an extra note, one risk that is often cited in bad cheese is Listeria. Listeria causes sepsis and meningitis, and is particularly dangerous to pregnant women, newborns, adults with weakened immune systems, and the elderly. Ironically, Listeria is one of the least likely to be found in bathtub cheeses as it doesn’t compete well with other bacteria. So you’d actually more likely find it in factory made cheese where no other bacteria competes with it!