Organic Consumers Association

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The FDA's Crackdown on Small Cheesemakers Fails to Turn up Many Bugs

To many observers, including me, the Food and Drug Administration's recent pathogen-hunting campaign amongst artisanal and small cheese makers is evidence that it will not wield the new powers granted it to by the Food Safety Modernization Act neutrally, to inspect and regulate the largest sources of risk in the food system. (See Grist's Food Fight debate, in which I was a participant, for more.) It's gone looking for the most easily findable, albeit least commonly infectious pathogen around -- listeria monocytogenes.

Its agenda seems to be building a compelling case for lengthening or eliminating the 60-day aging requirement for raw-milk cheeses. For decades, American dairy regulations have allowed the sale of cheese made from unpasteurized milk as long as it's aged at least 60 days, during which pathogens should die off in the fermentation process. Europe does not have this same aging requirement, and allows the sale of soft raw-milk cheeses.

The FDA has come up with two "bingos" in its search -- findings of listeria monocytogenes at two small cheese makers, in Missouri (Morningland Dairy) and Washington (Estrella Family Creamery). Plus, a third cheese maker (Bravo Farms), in California, has been connected with more than 30 illnesses. A recent article on the Estrella case said that the FDA in its hunt found 24 cheesemakers with listeria monocytogenes.

Now, the American Cheese Society, which includes nearly 300 artisanal cheese makers -- more than half of which produce raw-milk cheeses -- has released data about how the FDA inspections have affected its members. Its findings suggest that despite the FDA's intense dragnet, with the agency searching every crease and crevice of cheese producers seeking listeria, it appears to be coming up empty by and large. 
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