Bryan Buckalew of OPB News and I talked a few weeks ago:
Listen Here – Audio
Read the transcript below:
Northwest artisan cheese makers say the F.D.A. just doesn’t get their craft. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been getting tough on food companies after years of incidents like last August’s nation-wide egg recall.
President Obama signed a new food safety law this month expanding the F.D.A.’s authority. But two Northwest cheesemakers have been especially hard hit by new requirements.
Last year, Washington State inspectors found listeria at the Estrella Family Creamery in Montesano, Washington.
It’s a bacteria that causes flu-like symptoms that’s especially dangerous for pregnant women.
Owner Kelli Estrella says she cleaned up the listeria, but last September the FDA checked again.
After one swab came back positive, inspectors asked Estrella to order a broad recall.
She said no. Estrella argued most of her cheese wasn’t contaminated at all.
But a federal judge sent marshals to impound the cheese anyway.
Kelli Estrella: “At this point, our attorney is hoping we can come to an agreement out of court. To be honest, I’ve very concerned that we are still too far away from coming to an agreement and will we be able to hold up and not go bankrupt by the time that happens.”
Central to the question of whether Estrella and the FDA will be able to reach an agreement is the issue of size: should artisan producers be judged by the same standards as industrial food companies?
Kelli Estrella: “Do you know what cheese mites are?”
They’re these microscopic little critters that sometimes burrow into the rinds of longer aged cheeses, like Mimolette, a French cheese that’s actually aged with cheese mites.
Kelli Estrella: “On purpose! It doesn’t make anybody sick. But see the F.D.A. says, ‘This is filth.’ That’s not filth, that’s natural.”
Jennifer Thomas: “From our perspective, from the F.D.A.’s perspective, we don’t treat small producers any differently from large producers.”
Jennifer Thomas heads up the enforcement group at F.D.A.’s center for foods.
Jennifer Thomas: “If the F.D.A. comes in and finds you have product contamination or environmental contamination, then our expectation is that those producers take action very quickly to address that. Safety pertains the same to a small producer as it does a large producer.
But many consumers in the Northwest prefer small, local food producers.
Bill Marler questions why. He’s an attorney in Seattle who’s represented people sickened by contaminated food from companies like KFC and ConAgra.
Bill Marler: “There’s no question I think that we really need to look really hard at how we produce our agriculture in the country. But I don’t think we should just have these conventional wisdoms that because something is small, because something is artisan, that somehow it’s safer.”
Still, artisan cheesemakers are finding it hard to conform the F.D.A’s one-size-fits-all approach.
Sally Jackson is another raw milk cheesemaker in Washington. Her farm is in Oroville, way up near the Canadian border.
In December, her cheese sickened eight people in four states.
Sally Jackson: “In 30 years of cheesemaking, I had never had anybody say that they got sick from eating my cheese, so it was really shocking because it sounded bad, obviously.”
Ultimately, she shut down her business. She says the recall plus the upgrades she would’ve had to make to her facility – it was all just too expensive.
Bryan Buckalew: “Will you keep your farm?”
Sally Jackson: “I don’t know at this point.”
Jackson’s fellow cheesemaker Kelli Estrella is hoping she can reach an agreement with the F.D.A. so she doesn’t go out of business too.