FDA Releases Soft-Ripened Cheese Risk Assessment

On Monday February 11th, the  FDA released its Draft Joint Quantitative Assessment of the Risk of Listeriosis From Soft Ripened Cheese Consumption in the US and Canada. (Download the full 175 page document here - scroll down to the category heading "listeria."). The document, jointly produced by the FDA and Health Canada, seeks to quantify the public health risk for listeria monocytogenes, a known bacterial pathogen that has been found to occur in a variety of food products including cheese. Listeria and soft ripened cheeses are the focus of the report, because 1) data shows listeria has been the most frequently occurring pathogen found in cheese and thus poses the most significant public health risk and 2) fresh and soft ripened cheeses are particularly susceptible to listeria contamination. According to the report, from 1986 to 2008 (a period of 22 years) there were 137 cheese recalls, 108 of which were listeria related. The incidence rate during the same period was similar in Canada.

Meanwhile, at the same time this report is being released, there is an ongoing listeriosis outbreak in Australia. At least 26 people have been sickened by eating soft-ripened cheese made by Jindi Cheese Co. Three people have died so far (more on the Australian outbreak here and here).

[update: I originally mentioned the Australia outbreak here a bit lazily, because it was/is happening at the same time as this FDA document was issued. But as Matt Briggs of Cheese Notes has since pointed out to me, the coincidence is not really the story here. Australia's raw milk laws are notoriously strict... and the cheese being blamed for the recent deaths was apparently made with pasteurized milk. It might also be worth noting that Jindi Cheese Co., the company whose cheeses have sparked the recall in Australia, is owned by France-based Lactalis. We're not talking about artisan-scale production in that particular case.]

The FDA/Health Canada Risk Assessment injects quantifiable data and statistical analysis into the ongoing broader cultural and industry discussion of the safety of raw milk cheeses. While I am far from qualified to weigh in on the value of the analysis, I think it's fair to say that overall the effort is a good thing. But the results of this risk assessment do not reflect well on raw milk soft ripened cheeses....the report estimates the risk of listeriosis from soft-ripened cheeses made with raw milk at as much as 160 times higher than that from soft-ripened cheese made with pasteurized milk.

At the end of the pre-release announcement (issued Friday Feb. 8th), the FDA offered the purpose for conducting the risk assessment exercise:

When finalized, FDA intends to use this risk assessment (which is limited to one pathogen in one type of cheese), along with other information and scientific assessments that more comprehensively consider the different pathogens that can be present in all types of cheeses made from raw milk, in its reevaluation of the existing 60-day aging requirements for cheeses made with raw milk (e.g., 21 CFR 133.182(a)).

It almost goes without saying that this document portends significant changes to the present regulatory scheme covering cheesemaking in the US. What those changes will eventually look like remains to be seen.

See the formal Federal Register announcement here, including instructions for submitting comments to the draft report. Comments must be received by April 29, 2013.

Northwest Cheese Top Stories of 2010

Recalls, Seizures Without a doubt, the biggest NW cheese story of 2010 - in fact, the biggest cheese story of the year, period - was the series of events that started in February with Estrella Family Creamery's first recall of cheese. The Estrellas continued to make headlines throughout the year, culminating in the FDA seizure in October and its ongoing aftermath. Later in December, we witnessed the e coli outbreak that was eventually traced to cheese made by Sally Jackson. But the overall food safety story is much bigger than these two producers (others were also caught up in the recall net, including Bravo Farms in California) - I think we are going to see regulatory changes in the future that will have wide reaching effect on the cheese we love to eat. Stay tuned.

Oregon State University Bequest  This news has flown largely under the radar but I think its effects will be HUGE for the cheese industry in Oregon. OSU announced in early December that it received a $860,000 donation that will be devoted to developing an OSU Dairy Center. OSU is reviving its shuttered creamery as a cheesemaking incubator for new cheesemakers and I'm looking forward to the promised Beaver Cheese coming in 2011. The state's cheesemaking community will benefit from this for years to come. Watch out Vermont!

Beecher's Expands to NYC  Seattle's favorite urban cheesemaker announced in March of 2010 that they will open a new satellite store in New York City in early 2011. This represents a significant expansion of Kurt Dammeier's cheese empire and provides a new growth model for the industry. Will other small-mid sized cheesemakers follow suit? Will New Yorkers love their new Flatiron cheese as much as Seattleites love Flagship? Only time will tell.

Artisan Cheese Renaissance Ongoing in the NW  I keep thinking that at some point the rapid increase in numbers of small cheesemakers in the Pacific NW will decline or at least slow down but that's not been the case...2010 was a banner year for the business. New cheesemakers in the region this year included Yarmuth Farms and Tieton Farm and Creamery in Washington, Cheese Louise Creamery in Oregon and two new sheep's milk dairies in Idaho, Lark's Meadow Farm and Blue Sage Farm. Another demonstration of the region's ongoing love affair with cheese was the opening of a new cheese shop in Seattle in May: Calf & Kid.

Closures/Evolutions  Despite an ongoing recession, only a few cheesemakers left the fold this year, including Siskiyou Crest Goat Dairy in Southern Oregon (which voluntarily surrended its licensed cheesemaker status in favor of selling goat shares) and Sally Jackson in Washington. The loss of industry pioneer Sally Jackson's cheeses is a blow for the entire cheesemaking community and represents, on a number of levels, the end of an era.

Awards Keep Rolling In The awards for cheeses made in the Pacific Northwest continue. At the American Cheese Society Conference held in Seattle, NW Cheesemakers took 42 awards in a wide range of categories. I was especially pleased to see tiny Mystery Bay Farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington pull out top honors for flavored chevre - that's among 1400+ entries! While you might be inclined to think that awards are solely about marketing (and that's true to an extent) they are also about having your products judged alongside those of your peers. These awards demonstrate that our region's cheeses are as good or better than any cheese in the nation.

In Memoriam  This year saw the passing of two bright lights in our region's cheesemaking community: Chuck Evans of Rollingstone Chevre in Idaho and Kathy Obringer of Ancient Heritage Dairy in Oregon.

Happy New Year!

** Reminisce with the Northwest Cheese Top Stories of 2009

Estrella Family Creamery Shut Down by FDA

I'm sorry to report that on Thursday October 21st, 2010, the FDA shut down Estrella Family Creamery.

From the Estrella website:

Dear Friends - Last night about 5:30 three cars pulled into the yard with FDA and Federal Marshals, alarming our kids. They posted a seizure order that named all cheeses on the property. This is serious, it could put us out of business.

See Kelli Estrella's full statement here.

The FDA has not released any information so there is currently no way of knowing the reasons behind this most recent action. I'll post more information as soon as I find it.

update: according to Seattle Local Food, the closure was NOT the result of any particular incident and the Estrellas had no recent positive listeria tests. Kelli Estrella provided copies of inspection records at the University Farmers Market Saturday.

update: see subsequent posting here. According to the FDA, there were a number of recent positive listeria tests, as recently as late August 2010.