New raw cheese rule could harm Vermont industry
ADDISON COUNTY — A new U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation that could severely limit production of raw milk cheeses has just been put on hold, but local cheesemakers aren’t out from under the shadow of the rule just yet.
“We believe this regulation, if it stays in effect, will have several million dollars in economic impact on Vermont cheesemakers, their workers and their dairy families serving their milk needs,” said Tom Bivins, executive director of the Vermont Cheese Council. “Some retail partners have told our members that they are questioning whether they should be selling raw milk cheeses at all in this uncertain FDA environment.”
Among the local producers of cheese made with raw, unpasteurized milk are Blue Ledge Farm in Leicester, Fairy Tale Farm in Bridport and Twig Farm in Cornwall.
Late last year the FDA reduced the allowable measure of non-toxigenic E. coli in raw milk cheeses from what’s called a “most probable number” of 10,000 per gram to a new MPN standard of 10 per gram. The drastic change in standards affects raw milk cheeses made in the United States as well as those imported from abroad. But, after pushback from federal lawmakers (including the entire Vermont congressional delegation), the FDA on Monday announced that it would “re-evaluate its criteria” and that it “is in the process of pausing its testing program for non-toxigenic E. coli in cheese.”
This “pause” brings good news to those Addison County farmstead cheesemakers whose lines of products include raw milk cheeses. Bivins explained that about 32 of the Cheese Council’s 48 members statewide make raw milk cheese.
“Those cheeses that are soft-ripened and washed rind cheeses aged at least 60 days are the most vulnerable,” he aid. That’s “about 25 different types of cheese — sheep, goat and cow.”
E. COLI, FRIEND AND FOE
While the very mention of “E. coli” is enough to frighten most consumers, not all microbes are alike, explained award-winning cheesemaker Michael Lee of Twig Farm. The pathogen that is infamously responsible for virulent outbreaks of food poisoning when found in spinach and hamburger is a particular strain of bacteria called E. coli 0157:H7. But the FDA regulation is aimed at generic non-toxigenic E. coli, which are part of the natural microbial process that nature employs in the making of such classic raw milk cheeses as Parmigiano-Reggiano and Roquefort.
In fact, says Lee, the non-toxigenic E. coli are part of what gives many raw milk cheeses their distinctive smells, textures and flavors. Moreover, says Lee, while the FDA’s insistence on lowering non-toxigenic E. coli levels in raw milk cheeses won’t make food safer, it is a distraction from the kinds of animal health and hygiene, production and storage measures that artisanal cheesemakers must implement every day to ensure a quality product.
“We’re up to our eyeballs in preventative food safety,” said Lee.
“Raw milk cheese is the way that cheese has traditionally been made since people started making cheese, and it’s generally safe, especially in aged raw milk cheese, because there are beneficial bacteria that will essentially eat all of the sugar and the milk in the process of cheese making,” Lee added, explaining how food safety issues differ between raw milk cheeses and those made from pasteurized milk. “Then the cheese is aged and in this way it prevents harmful bacteria from growing.
“That’s the reason why raw milk cheese is not a high-risk food. Whereas with raw milk there’s been no steps taken to preserve that milk other than refrigeration. But that’s why people make cheese. You have milk and you want to preserve it and you want to find a way to make it safe to have in the future.”
University of Vermont food scientist Catherine Donnelly agrees that the FDA’s change on E. coli is bad policy.
Donnelly is an internationally recognized expert on microbiological food safety, much of whose work and research has centered on artisanal cheese production. For over a decade, Donnelly headed the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, which was based at UVM and offered workshops and advice on research-based food safety practices to the state’s small-scale cheese producers. Although the institute closed its doors in 2013, Donnelly’s research continues to inform Vermont’s and the nation’s small-scale cheesemakers on best practices.
“There’s no scientific justification for the FDA’s change from 10,000 to 10 (MPN per gram),” said Donnelly. “So that begs the question, is this public health or is this politics?”
Donnelly points out that one of the effects of the new FDA E. coli standards is to restrict the import and sale of European cheeses, which must now meet the U.S. standards. She explained that the new FDA regulations treat cheese made from raw milk the same as cheeses made from pasteurized milk, and that this is at odds with the science behind making the two products. Because pasteurization kills E. coli bacteria, its presence in significant numbers in cheeses made from pasteurized milk indicates some flaw in the production process. But those same microbes are in fact an integral part of making cheeses from raw milk.
“When you look at generic E. coli — that’s what non-toxigenic E. coli are — they’re organisms we find everywhere. They reside in our gut. And they can be found regularly in raw milk cheeses,” said Donnelly.
The International Commission on the Microbiological Specifications for Food doesn’t recommend testing for E. coli, she pointed out, because the organization says in certain cheeses E. coli can be considered a characteristic part of the cheese flora.
Food safety in artisanal cheeses, explained Donnelly, is built around good farm practices, like having healthy animals that produce good quality milk, a clean environment and clean equipment for milking and making cheese, and a scientific approach to cheese storage that encourages good microbes and discourages bad ones. And because farmstead cheesemakers typically use milk from their own herds, food safety isn’t complicated by transport or storage issues.
At the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, raw milk cheeses are an especially popular item, says cheese buyer Wendy Stewart.
“We have a hard time keeping them on the shelf,” said Stewart.
The co-op carries raw milk cheese from Europe and from around Vermont and Addison County. Stewart pointed out that, in addition to the local cheesemakers, many local dairies supply raw milk to Organic Valley for its raw milk mild and sharp cheddars. Additionally, Stewart noted, in Vermont all cheese made from raw milk must be aged more than two months. Any cheese aged less than two months must be made with pasteurized milk.
CONGRESSIONAL AND OTHER ACTION
Twenty-four members of Congress sent a letter questioning the scientific basis of the FDA’s new standards to FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor. It also asked that the agency listen to feedback from cheese producers and questioned the public health value of the regulations and whether the new standard was adopted in an open and transparent way.
“The new standard will severely limit the production of raw milk cheeses across the country,” the letter said. “Such a drastic step would only be justified were these cheeses presenting a demonstrable public health risk, which, to date, we have not seen evidence of.”
The FDA’s answer to that letter and to protests from cheesemakers nationwide, received in Welch’s office this past Monday, stated that the agency would pause its non-toxigenic E. coli testing program and that it would continue its “already very productive dialogue with the ACS (American Cheese Society) and other cheese industry stakeholders to benefit from their expertise about safe cheese-making practices and achieve our mutual goal of food safety.”
“The FDA has done the right thing by calling a timeout in its testing program,” Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said in an email to the Independent. “It is essential that they get this right. A failure to do so will have enormous consequences for Vermont’s artisan cheesemakers and could do irreparable harm to this growing sector of the state’s economy. In order to get it right, the agency must be transparent in its process, listen carefully to the concerns of the artisan cheese community, and work collaboratively with all parties on a solution that protects consumers without harming these vital small businesses.”
The FDA scheduled a “listening session” for Thursday, Feb. 11, with American Cheese Society representatives and artisanal cheesemakers from across the country, including Vermont cheesemakers Mateo Kehler, of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro Bend and Jeremy Stephenson, of Spring Brook Farm in Reading.
But although the FDA has announced that it “is in the process of pausing its testing program for non-toxigenic E. coli in cheese,” the new regulations still remain on the books, noted UVM’s Donnelly. And, she said, the economic impact of the new standards could still take a bite out of Vermont’s agricultural economy if not reversed entirely.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected]
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