Cheesemakers React to Recent Safety News

Recent news about problems with raw milk cheeses sold by Morningland Dairy, Estrella Family Creamery and now Bravo Farms in California is making waves with consumers and the cheesemaking industry.

I have been contacted by a number of reporters in the past few weeks and all have asked me how cheesemakers are reacting to the news. My answer is: across the board, cheesemakers are taking a hard look at their operations. They are evaluating and re-evaluating their processes and looking for ways to maintain and improve their safety practices.

This is really important: everyone in the industry - raw milk cheesemakers and pasteurized milk cheesemakers alike - wants to make and sell safe, healthy and preferably delicious products. All over the internet, people are jumping to conclusions about raw milk cheeses and the production thereof without even a cursory understanding of the process of making cheese. Their reactionary rush to judgment damning the industry is frustrating, to say the least.

But I digress. In any event, I thought it would be instructive to ask cheesemakers if they'd be willing to open up a bit about how they're feeling these days. I promised all anonymity (so don't even ask). Here are some of their answers:

I am concerned about any potential surprise investigations because the investigators usually don't have any experience with farms at all. The ones who visited here [recently] had never even been on a farm before. Not a good thing in my opinion. I expect a group of them to show up at anytime and haul a wad of cheese off for testing. I am certain it will be clean of any problems, but the whole thing is worrisome, to say the least. 

So far I haven't noticed any drop in sales, in fact, we have picked up a few new outlets. But you know, I haven't sold a raw milk cheese in a week or more....that is interesting.

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We already do and document things that make our production safe, but it makes me want to do more, just to be sure.

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[The recent news] does make me paranoid.  I try to be super aware of my surroundings . . . the frustration is that USDA can go around being police dogs but why won't they hand out information on how to prevent [listeria and other problems]?

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I have not changed any practices here. [. . . ] I spend a considerable amount of time, money, thought, resources, research, dialogue, and general improvement strategies to maintain this farm in as clean a manner as I possibly can.  And with it comes a price - a big price.  I have had 2 cheesemongers tell me recently that they think I make some of the best cheese around, but since they cannot make their margin on it, they seldom order from me.  This is frustrating.

So I continue my scrubbing, personal hygiene demands, sanitizing, deep cleaning regularly, and always going the extra steps to do what I believe to be right.

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I get ticked off at the people who sell raw milk without having to standards or regular testing or even worse, make and distribute cheese illegally. I go to all this trouble to stay in compliance with [the law] and they have no one to answer to.  If there are regulations that I must comply with in order to be able to make cheese, then I will do my job and follow the mandated rules and regulations.  I do believe people should be able to have access to raw milk, but I standards should be maintained for everyone's safety.  As you get farther away from the source, there is a greater potential for contaminants to enter the picture and someone might get sick from an unwashed hand touching something they should not touch.

One cheesemaker that currently produces only raw milk cheeses is going so far as to switch to pasteurized milk cheeses:

I've been very upset . . . I am so mad when someone is careless, cuts corners, or anything that brings down the overall quality of any food product.  The public's trust is priceless.

 We feel it's going to directly affect us as a raw milk cheese maker in that we likely will not be able to get product liability insurance--this last year was more difficult than the year before in that respect. In order to maintain insurance coverage we are going to pasteurize . . . Someone else's behavior reflects across the industry and costs others, as well.  [The pasteurizer] will cost us about $30,000.  So, of course I'm a little bitter right now, but not at the government, because I, too, want to eat safe cheese.

One cheesemaker that produces only pasteurized milk cheeses says that they are not even willing to take the risk of making raw milk cheese.

I would never make raw milk cheese.  It is simply just too much risk for me to take.  60 days is not a guarantee that the product is safe and some pathogens have toxins that will stay in the product even after the live cells die.  If a company decides to make raw milk cheese, they should have a rigorous environmental sampling program testing drains, walls, air handling, overhead piping, etc. in addition to testing all final product for pathogens.   

That being said, this producer does believe it is possible to make raw milk cheese safely:

It is definitely possible to make [raw milk cheese] safely, but you need very good controls all the way through the process.  I think you would need to have your own milk supply and the raw milk supply must be of top quality.  From there the air quality in the processing facility, cleaning practices, and manufacturing practices must be of the highest standard. Then finished product testing must be completed. 

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If anyone would like to contribute to the conversation email me (see link at the upper right of the page) or add a comment below.