FDA ramps up scrutiny on a new area: Cheese

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 9:48 PM

In a filing in federal court two weeks ago, the U.S. attorney in Sacramento named as the defendant 97 wedges of Gouda cheese. The co-defendant was 14 blocks of white cheddar, including the sage, white pepper and onion varieties.

It was an apt, if odd, quirk in an arcane legal process, as the government took steps to seize the cheese - 40 tons of it. The Gouda and cheddar were made by Bravo Farms, a small artisanal cheesemaker whose award-winning morsels were linked to an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 illness that sickened at least 38 people. By invoking civil forfeiture law, the government could take immediate possession of the suspect cheese and prevent it from entering the food supply.

Cheese, it turns out, has been on the defensive increasingly over the past year, as federal regulators rachet up their scrutiny of a growing segment of the food business: artisanal cheesemakers.

Since April, the Food and Drug Administration has increased inspections of cheesemaking facilities, launched a review of its regulations and been reassessing the health risks posed by specialty cheeses.

Regulators say they are trying to prevent and reduce serious illnesses caused by contaminated cheese. Over the past five years, according to the FDA, outbreaks involving raw-milk cheese made more than 400 people ill, leading to 87 hospitalizations, a stillbirth and two miscarriages.

"The primary message is that food has to be made safely, no matter where it's made," said Donald Kraemer, deputy director at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "We don't expect the small artisan cheese manufacturer to look like a Kraft facility. But the fundamental things which make food safe must be in place."

But artisanal cheesemakers, and their boosters in the local-food movement, say they are being unfairly targeted. They say the FDA does not understand their craft and is trying to impose standards better suited for industrial food companies.

Taste vs. safety

The conflict is emerging particularly around cheese made from raw milk, especially soft cheeses - the kind that have inspired devotion from foodies and can garner $27 a pound in high-end markets.

"There's extra depth of complexity in raw cheeses, particularly soft ripened cheeses," said Roy Breiman, a chef and culinary director at Cedarbrook Lodge in Seattle, who uses artisanal cheeses on his menu. "Watch the flavor on the palate and you get all the different nuances, from fruits to nuts to grass to milk." By contrast, most cheese made from pasteurized milk tastes dull, he said.

Artisanal cheesemakers make their products by hand in small batches, following practices hundreds of years old. Many raise the cows or goats that produce the milk for the cheese, overseeing every step from raw ingredient to finished product.

But because cheese made from raw milk is not heated, regulators worry that the lack of a "kill step" means greater risk of contamination from pathogens that can cause illness.

To address that, federal law requires cheese made from raw milk to be aged for at least 60 days. The theory is that two months is long enough for the acids and salts in the cheese to kill off harmful bacteria such as listeria, salmonella and E. coli.

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