The Cheese Police
As new food safety laws come to the FDA, cheesemakers best stay clean
Over the past year the artisan cheese world has been shaken by the shutdown of several small but significant cheesemaking facilities, due to bacteria findings in cheeses and creameries. In response to these cases, cheesemakers around the country have rallied, believing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is being particularly aggressive in inspecting small producers. Now it appears things may only get tougher.
In early January, President Obama signed into law historic food-safety legislation, the first major revamping of the country’s regulations on food quality since the Great Depression. Some small cheesemakers may be exempted, but for those that are not, and many will not be, it means stepped-up inspections of farms and food-processing facilities. The law also calls for the FDA to hire 2,000 additional inspectors. (Whether this Congress will fully fund them is another question.)
The findings of dangerous bacteria at some cheesemaking facilities and the punitive response by the FDA has alarmed cheese producers and stoked a national debate over how the government should be regulating food produced by small farmers and artisans.
Cheesemakers say FDA inspections have unfairly targeted small farmers and producers, when it’s the products of large-scale food companies that have caused many more illnesses than any tainted cheese from small farms. The FDA claims its heightened enforcement is not determined by the size of facility, but by the style of cheese being produced; high-moisture and soft-ripened varieties are more vulnerable to the offending bacteria, E. coli and Listeria monocytogenes, or L. mono. But some cheesemakers are also asking why state inspectors are not finding the same problems as federal inspectors and warning producers of problems before the feds come through and create havoc for their creameries.
All the Fuss
The hubbub began last year. In the spring the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, worried about the severity of the food-borne illness listeriosis, decided to sample selected soft-cheese manufacturers. By fall the agency had taken 147 samples from 102 companies. Thirty-two were found to be positive for L. mono.
One of those was the Estrella Family Creamery in Washington State, run by Kelli Estrella, an award-winning cheesemaker, who uses milk from her 36 cows and 40 goats to make artisan cheeses that she sells at farmers’ markets. The results were devastating to her business.
In October, weeks after issuing a press release warning against the creamery’s cheeses, the FDA asked Estrella to recall every cheese she makes, despite the fact that inspectors found L. mono in only one cheese cave (actually a refrigerated room), out of four in the facility. Estrella refused. The FDA got a court order to shut down the creamery. Under the new law the FDA no longer will have to rely on cheesemakers to to voluntarily recall their products. The agency now has the authority to recall tainted foods on its own.
Late last year Washington State inspectors asked another farmstead producer to recall her cheeses after they found that a handful of cases of E. coli might be linked to her products. Farmer Sally Jackson immediately cooperated with government agencies and issued a recall of her cheeses. As a result of the incident, she has since retired from the business, according to her website. Another producer, Bravo Farms in Traver, California, was also linked to an outbreak of E. coli last November. The cheesemaker voluntarily shut down production and halted sales while investigating the pathogen. It has since resumed cheesemaking but now conducts finished product testing—a safeguard that was never before instituted in the company’s 20-year history.
Those defending cheesemakers and the age-old methods of their craft find the FDA’s rules and inspections to be over the top. The FDA has zero tolerance for Listeria in cheese, while in most European countries, where producers make many coveted artisan cheeses, regulations allow 100 colony-forming units (cfus) of L. mono, believing that amount is not harmful to consumers.
“That is not our standard,” says John Sheehan, director for the Division of Plant and Dairy Food Safety, FDA’s Office of Food Safety, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “As to whether that results in higher levels of illness, that’s a question for the Centers for Disease Control to answer.”
Many in the cheese industry argue that large-scale producers and sellers of foods such as peanut butter, eggs, and cookie dough present a much larger risk to the nation’s population. Salmonella and other bacteria were found in those products and were sold to millions of people. Hundreds were sickened.
“Cheeses are not causing most of the food-safety problems,” says Dr. Catherine Donnelly, a Listeria expert at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese. “From a risk-based perspective, egg producers, producing millions of contaminated eggs with salmonella, have caused many more human illnesses than these cheeses being recalled. In the scheme of things, let’s look at high-risk foods and volumes produced. We don’t have unending resources to deal with food safety. We need to target those causing the most risk.”
Sheehan disagrees. He says the FDA’s responsibilities are many and varied and the agency is able to devote attention to all of them simultaneously. Dangerous bacteria have been found in cheeses, and the FDA will continue to inspect cheesemaking operations, looking particularly at “high risk” facilities. The new law calls for initial federal inspections at high-risk facilities within five years, then every three years after that.
Some cheesemakers protest that despite findings of Listeria, few people have gotten sick from tainted cheeses. The FDA does not consider that a good argument. “The FDA will not wait for a food to cause illness before it acts,” Sheehan says.
Advocate or Adversary
All the publicity surrounding cheese recalls is certainly bad for the industry. Ultimately producers need to stay out of the news, preferably by staying bacteria free. The best way to do that is to put in place better systems for avoiding contaminants in their facilities, believes Mateo Kehler, who, along with his brother Andy and their families, makes and ages cheese at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont.
“That’s the crux of it,” he states. Cheesemakers need to adopt risk-management and food-safety plans. “A lot of people think cheesemaking is an art,” he says, “but we’re producing food for families and children. We need to do that in a responsible way.”
The creamery at Jasper Hill Farm does a lot of its own raw-product and environmental sampling, Kehler says, spending about three percent of gross sales on testing. Though not happy about a recent FDA visit, they were ready when inspectors showed up. “We have a track record,” he says. “We’ve been doing this for eight years now, and we’ve been working at doing a little better every day. A lot of cheesemakers were not prepared.” As contrary as it sounds, one of the problems for producers over the past few years has actually been a lack of inspections. “Having a robust regulatory system is a good thing,” Kehler remarks.
That said, Kehler is quick to add that one of the current problems, he believes, is that the FDA comes in not as a source of technical support but looking to punish. “They’re the hammer. In other countries, food-safety agencies have a regulatory component, but they’re also there to help companies produce safe food, not put them out of business.”
More frustrating is to have a state inspector give a thumbs-up to a facility, only to have a federal inspection result in shutting a producer down. Estrella says the Washington State Department of Agriculture in March last year found one positive swab for L. mono in a floor drain but told her the facility had made major improvements. The state agency was satisfied that she could sell her cheeses, she says. A few months later the FDA closed her operation.
Some cheesemakers concede that they should be doing more swabbing for bacteria on their own, instead of waiting for state inspectors to come through and inform them of problems they should have found first.
The intent of the new food-safety law is to put in place a proactive approach to avoid outbreaks of bacteria in food, rather than react to problems after they occur. Farmers are required to develop strategies to prevent contamination and then test frequently to ensure that they’re working, as many cheese producers already do. The law also gives the FDA access to internal records at farms and food-production facilities.
An amendment by Democratic Senator Jon Tester from Montana is meant to protect small, local food producers from certain aspects of the regulations. It exempts “very small businesses,” which have yet to be defined by the FDA (as of this writing).
Nonetheless, cheesemakers of any size will still have to demonstrate that they recognize potential biohazards and are putting in place preventive controls accordingly. The work of creating artisan cheese, it appears, just may be more about cleanliness than craft.
Written by Ellen Perlman
Illustration by Dmitri Jackson