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Interesting piece in the New York Times about the conflict between the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the artisanal cheese movement, which are engaged “in a contentious national debate over the safety of food produced by small farmers and how much the government should regulate it.”

As described by the Times, “Artisan cheese is made by hand in small batches, often using raw milk that is not pasteurized to kill bacteria (raw-milk cheeses must be aged 60 days to make them safer). In recent years, the number of artisan cheesemakers has grown rapidly. Washington State now has 34, up from about 18 in 2005. Vermont, another hot spot, has 48, up from 27 in 2005.” According to the story, federal and state regulators “say they have very real concerns about the safety of cheese, especially softer varieties like brie and mozzarella that are more likely to harbor listeria. The F.D.A. began in April to test soft-cheese makers for listeria, visiting 102 facilities, large and small, and found the bacteria in 24 of them. While the list of facilities where listeria was found included some large factories, more than half of the makers were artisanal producers.”

At the center of the debate is Kelli Estrella, a highly regarded Washington State artisanal cheesemaker, whose case “has drawn visceral reaction from foodies because the allegations threaten a core belief of what has come to be known as the locavore movement: that food from small, local producers is inherently better and safer than food made by large, faceless corporations. Her supporters cast her as a David fighting a two-headed Goliath of Big Food and Big Government.”

The allegations against Estrella stem from state tests that “found listeria in her cheese and throughout the farm building where she makes and ages it. The bacteria was even in a humidifier that officials said blew it around the facility. Ms. Estrella recalled some cheese and did a vigorous cleaning and renovation.

“But in August, F.D.A. inspectors again found the bacteria in her facility and cheese. In early September, they asked her to recall all of her products. Ms. Estrella said no, a rare act of defiance by any food maker. She argued that the F.D.A. had found listeria only in her soft cheeses and that hundreds of wheels of hard cheese were safe. She estimated the value of the cheese the government wanted destroyed at more than $100,000.”

The FDA cannot simply force a recall, but it has gone to court and gotten a court-ordered impounding of Estrella’s cheese, effectively stopping her from doing business.

Part of the problem, according to the Times, is that the two sides don’t even seem to be speaking the same language. Estrella “says she believes that the F.D.A.’s crackdown is part of a larger campaign against raw milk, and she is fighting for her customers’ right to eat whatever they choose. ‘I don’t think this issue is about bacteria and it’s not about cheese,’ she said. ‘I think that we’re losing our freedom.’

“The F.D.A. said it was not targeting artisan cheesemakers or those who use raw milk, and its listeria testing had included producers across the spectrum. While cheesemakers acknowledge the need for good sanitation, some supporters question the agency’s approach.”
KC's View:
Fascinating story, and an issue without easy solutions. I would hope that there can be some sort of legitimate and reasonable compromise between the two sides; I am sympathetic to the notion that one cannot deal with big and small manufacturers the same way, but I must admit that I am given pause by the fact that listeria was found in Estrella’s facility. Given a choice, I’m not sure I would eat her cheese.