Regulation and the Cheese Industry

Cheese Industry Regulation

The recent events at Estrella Family Creamery (and the recall at Morningland Dairy in Missouri) have given quite a jolt to the cheese industry as well as to consumers. I'm receiving tons of comments and emails from people expressing their outrage at the rather dramatic events in Washington that included the forced closure of the Estrellas' business.

I want to provide a little context here. Milk and milk products like cheese are VERY highly regulated. Cheesemakers and milk producers go into business knowing that there are a whole host of state and federal laws they must comply with, laws that include frequent and sometimes invasive inspections of their facilities and practices. The relationship between cheesemakers and inspectors resembles the relationship between restaurants and local health departments - your business is in some sense on the line at all times and the inspector wields a lot of power over what you do and how you do it. Still, you have to be inspected - and pass - if you want to stay in business serving food to the public. Can the health department (or the FDA, in this case) shut down your business? Yes, they can. While it's not something that you see very often, the power has always been there lurking in the shadows.

There is a purpose behind all of these regulations and inspections, and that's public health and safety. Of course there is plenty of room for debate as to the substance of the regulations themselves, and there should be debate. For example, in the cheese industry, many cheesemakers feel that the regulatory scheme with regard to cheese was designed for industrial producers and doesn't fit smaller creameries. But be that as it may, in general, I think everyone wants safe food, right? And regulations, inspectors and so on are part of what our country has developed to make food safer. I don't feel that food producers, restaurants or cheesemakers should be free to do whatever they want, whenever they want. There is simply too much that can go wrong in the world of food production and preparation.

While it's tragic that things have gone this far for the Estrellas, the law does provide processes for addressing whatever regulatory concerns may be raised by authorities. In their case, the issues will be hashed out in court. There, the FDA will have to prove to a judge that its concerns are accurate and relevant (as they should have to) and the Estrellas will have a chance to address the issues raised and argue otherwise.

If you don't like the regulations (and no doubt there's a lot that needs to be reviewed and changed with regard to cheesemaking) take the time to learn about the existing laws and the state/federal rulemaking process. Cheesemakers in particular are going to need to become experts on their rights (and responsibilities) as much as they are experts on the process of making cheese. Then I suggest we all get involved - because I suspect that recent events are only the beginning of what could be a long and protracted battle over the future of artisan cheesemaking.

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Some people are asking whether the FDA is specifically targeting raw milk cheeses and/or raw milk cheese producers, since both Estrella Family Creamery and Morningland Dairy produce only raw milk cheeses. I think it's too soon to tell what kind of agenda the FDA is pursuing here, if any. Given the rapid growth of the cheesemaking industry in the past 5-10 years, I think increased attention and oversight should not be entirely unexpected. That being said, according to this article from the NY Times, the so called '60 day rule' (cheeses made from raw milk can be sold to the public if aged at least 60 days) is being reconsidered by the FDA.

update: for more on the status of the 60 day rule see my subsequent post here.

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Speaking of inspections, I've just come across copies of FDA inspection reports at Estrella Family Creamery. (Download: FDA Inspection Report - via Bill Marler's blog via efoodalert). Incidentally, both of these blogs have been taking a pretty tough stance on events related to the Estrellas.