Washington State Artisan Cheesemaker's Battle with FDA a Case Study in Food Safety Debate

image from estrellafamilycreamery.com The New York Times has done a great service by writing a story on the Estrella Family Creamery in Washington State, as an example of how the current national debates about small farms and food safety land in the real world. (Go here, here, and here for background)

The Estrella family, pictured to the right, left the city to make world-class artisanal cheeses. Here's how Kelli tells their story:

In 2001 we left home and business for an abandoned dairy on 164 acres. They laughed at our young family and said it couldn't be done, and I'll admit I had my fears! My faith was put to the test during the blood, sweat and tears of the early years. But we started with three cheeses and now have a list of 18, and at last the farm even feels like home.

Sometime last year I noticed that there was a lot of food on our table and some empty chairs, so we adopted 3 more kids from Liberia. Together the kids are learning that hard work won't kill them, and that the pursuit of excellence in our craft and careful nurturing of the creatures placed in our care yield a tremendous reward. Over and over at our farmers markets and in our emails they say thank you, thank you!! And they tell us stories of some of the finest moments of their lives that were enriched by our cheese. We are so blessed.

We hope you enjoy the fruit of our labors as well, and thank you. 

Since establishing their cheesemaking operation with 36 cows and 40 goats they have gone on to win a a series of awards that would make any cheese-maker jealous, and a loyal base of customers at farmers' markets and Manhattan restaurants.

But according to the Times, recent actions of the FDA threaten to shut down the whole operation after they found the presence of listeria in her cheese and in the building where the cheese is aged. They did a thorough clean-up of the facility but the FDA found the bacteria again:

Last month, the F.D.A., which does not have the power to order a recall (the food safety bill in the Senate would give it that authority), went to court, saying the “persistent presence” of listeria meant all of Ms. Estrella’s cheese should be considered contaminated. In response, a federal judge sent marshals to effectively impound the cheese, preventing her from doing business.

No one is arguing that the Estrella's shouldn't have a safe product, but there is a debate about the role of the FDA in overseeing small artisinal operations vs. the large industrial cheesemakers.

“If the F.D.A. wanted to shut down the U.S. artisan cheese industry, all they’d have to do is do this environmental surveillance and the odds of finding a pathogen would be pretty great,” said Catherine W. Donnelly, co-director of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese of the University of Vermont, referring to the listeria testing at cheese plants. “Is our role to shut these places down or help them?”

Kurt Beecher Dammeier, owner of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, an artisan cheesemaker and retailer in Seattle, said the F.D.A. needed to work harder to understand artisans like Ms. Estrella. “The F.D.A. comes from an industrial, zero-defect, highly processed, repeatable perspective, and she comes from a more ancient time of creating with what she gets,” he said. “I’m not sure they can really even have a conversation.”

The key question is, do we want a food system where there is room for artisanal operators, or do we want a system where only industrial, highly processed foods are legal? There is concern that without the small farms amendments in the Food Safety Modernization Act, the American food system will be so inflexible, small farmers will be unable to comply. Just as the American food landscape is beginning to localize and diversify, the Food Safety act could undo the progress that has been made in recent years.

The Bill that passed cloture was essentially tabled this week when big ag lobbyists rallied legislators to halt the passage of the bill because of the small farms' amendments.

h/t Northwest Food News

UPDATE: For another, less sympathetic, take on the situation go here and here.