Food borne pathogens in cheese have always been a worry, especially for raw milk cheesemakers and consumers. Cheese is safer than most foods — in general — however, 2010 was a banner year for recalls.
2009 actually had some of the biggest food problems in recent memory, mostly with produce and meat contaminated with salmonella, listeria, and/or ecoli. This helped lead to the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 and, seemingly, a future of increased concentration on monitoring certain segments of the food system by the FDA.
This year some of the big names in the world of raw milk cheese have been associated with food borne pathogens. We have sold cheese from three of the four dairies currently affected by FDA-encouraged recalls, so it hits close to home. The “telling the story” of the cheesemaker that people love to promote sometimes leaves little room for critical analysis, and distance often precludes realistic assessment of a dairy’s HACCP program.
The issues for retailers and consumers are pretty clear here… we don’t want to sell or eat anything that can make people sick or dead. Yet, one minute we can hear about a producer with “traditional”, “artisan” methods and applaud the commitment to real food, the next minute recoil in fear and anger at the lack of modern food safety guarantees.
In fact, I often find myself in a bind when talking to customers about cheeses I don’t carry. One cheese company I stopped carrying because the cheesemaker was drunk – and not just a little bit – every time I saw him. There were some issues with some cheeses as well – nothing serious – but I dropped them because I was afraid something really bad could happen. However, I am not going to say to a customer, “I don’t carry XXXXX cheese because the cheesemaker is a drunk and I have food safety worries because he’s making raw milk cheese.”* ** I dropped another cheese for awhile after visiting the farm and being appalled at their food handling practices.
On the other side of customer concerns, I got into a huge fight*** with a customer because we weren’t carrying a cheese that had just recently been recalled (a new un-recalled batch was out but I was waiting for some questions to be answered before giving it back its shelf space). In their eyes I was giving in to the “Big Ag conspiracy against small farmers” by giving credence to the FDA.
“No,” I said, “I’m just trying to not kill people here.”
The problem with recalls, from a small producer point of view, are numerous. Is enforcement fair? Are easier targets chosen for publicity purposes or biases against certain kinds of production (like raw milk)? If your cheese does get recalled, how do you get your reputation back? Can your company/farm withstand the financial hit of destroying inventory and having no income? Can you ever get insurance again?
Because there is something to a “Big Ag conspiracy against small farmers”. They are easier targets with less resources with which to fight back. I firmly believe that the USDA confiscated and murdered the Faillace family sheep for no good reason other than they needed a press release to show that they were handling the “mad cow” issue. I believe that something was very odd with the process when a different cheese company went out of business a few years ago partially do to a recall for a food borne pathogen that could never be found in their facility or in any of their cheeses, save one bad test of one wheel that had left their premises.
However, most FDA inspectors I have met – in cheese-friendly settings to be sure – did not strike me as jack-booted thugs of Big Dairy, or a test from a vengeful God, but as quiet, science-oriented guys trying to keep people from getting sick. The problem is that one recall can kill a family business, and one non-recall can kill many consumers, so the stakes and emotions run very high.
I have a number of questions about the current recalls including, in at least one case, whether the cheesemaker was actually responsible or whether it was post-production contamination by another party. I will say though, that when I read the documentation behind a different recall, the things cited would, if true, get someone fired at our workplace.**** That’s pretty damning especially for a producer of a higher risk food like young, raw milk cheese. Other parts of the citation are less convincing, including the age-old cheesemaker vs. inspector battle over shelving in the aging room.
And perhaps part of the issue is the publicity and panic around recalls. In the interest of safety, ceasing sales from a relatively high risk food can make sense from a public safety point of view, but it is hard for a small dairy to lose that stigma even if they were not directly implicated, and extremely hard to make back the money in lost sales and higher insurance. Of the three companies currently dealing with these issues (that I deal with) one already decided to go out of business (Sally Jackson), one is in full-compliance mode, and the other is in fighting back mode. None are currently selling cheese as far as I know. Will folks buy their cheese again when they do? I know a lot of folks whose cheese we sell that went through recalls that no one remembers now, but most were much bigger operations.
2010 was the year of the raw milk cheese recall on the West Coast. Whether this will increase and spread throughout the US in 2011 is open to question but I hope that cheesemakers, especially raw milk cheesemakers, are reevaluating their HACCP plans and thinking how they can be even safer. More scrutiny is surely ahead.
*I said something vague about quality control
**I would have had similar worries about pasteurized cheese, but that made it scarier to me.
***With actual screaming and yelling! I felt like I should be working in NYC for a second
****Which is not an easy workplace to get fired from. Though actually, we’d probably just take away their cheese shifts and let them not wash their hands when receiving pallets of packaged grocery.