Wednesday, August 20, 2014

American regulators vs. American cheese

Posted By on 08.20.14 at 10:00 AM

Uplands farm, near Dodgeville, Wisconsin

Rush Creek Reserve, one of the most acclaimed artisanal cheeses in America, will not be made this year—and possibly never again. The reason is that new regulations from Washington appear to be poised to destroy much of the existing artisanal cheese movement. Yesterday I ran the first part of an interview with Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese Co. in Wisconsin, who last week canceled production of Rush Creek Reserve, a soft French-style cheese made from raw milk and aged 60 days. In the second part of our interview, he explains the regulatory environment that led to his decision.

Michael Gebert: So what happened that changed the environment for Rush Creek Reserve?

Andy Hatch: The thought process began a couple of years ago when it became clear that the FDA wanted to look at its rules for raw milk cheese made in the U.S. The rule has been that cheese could be made from raw milk as long as it's aged for more than 60 days. And when they announced, or let it become known, that they wanted to take a look at revising that rule, it was understood that that takes place through a standard kind of process. They collect data for a certain amount of time, do some research, maybe write a paper or two. Then eventually they'll publish their findings, propose a rule change, and open it up for public comment. And ultimately they'll issue a new regulation that will go into effect some time in the future—January 1, 2016, say.

That kind of process is fairly easy to deal with. It's a known process, it's fairly transparent, the rule is put out in front of you before it's enforced, and there's even a chance for you to comment and maybe help shape it. Something like that, as a small business owner, whatever industry you're in, you can deal with that. It's transparent, it's predictable, it's out in front of you.

What's changed over the last year or two is that they've taken their concern with soft, raw milk cheese and they've increased the pressure on producers making those cheeses. And they're doing that in ways that are not transparent, not predictable, and that creates confusion. And like any small business owner in any industry, you want to know what the rules are. It's very difficult to make plans, and to make budgets, and to extend yourself not knowing how you or your product is going to be treated by the government.

Wood boards [a proposed regulation earlier this summer to ban them] is one example of that; it's the one that got the most attention. That turned on a dime, all of sudden a memo was written saying that no cheese is going to be allowed to be sold that has been aged on a wood board. That happened without a change proposal, public comment—they claim it was a reinterpretation of an existing rule. But still, they just, in one memo, one internal memo that was written from the FDA to New York state, they threatened the livelihoods of dozens of producers like us, scores of producers—I think there's some $30 million of cheese aged on wood boards in Wisconsin.

Making cheese at Uplands

So when they start doing things like that it creates uncertainty, and that's what I'm reacting against. I'm not trying to make a political statement, or shame the FDA. It's a simple precautionary measure and a preemptive reaction to a regulatory climate that just feels opaque and unpredictable.

And it's not a reaction to any problem we've had here. We had a full FDA inspection this summer—that included sampling of our cheeses, and it went fine. It was really positive. Same with the state inspector. I want to make sure it doesn't look like I was covering up some problem we're having—I mean, we hadn't even started making the cheese this year. We have really good relations with our inspectors—this isn't an issue with them, it's more of a policy level.

So we're comfortable that we meet all of today's standards. We test every batch of cheese that leaves this building. We don't have problematic results. But it's the sense that we don't know what those standards are going to be next month.

So when the inspector was there in the summer, did you know that this was likely coming down? Did the inspector know?

No, and that's one of the things that's disconcerting—you talk to the inspector about these issues and you hear one thing on the ground, and then there's some memo circulating in another part of the country that will say something completely different. Two weeks ago the American Cheese Society met in Sacramento, and the Deputy Commissioner of the FDA came out, with half a dozen federal officials, and they were saying things that were different still from the other things that we were hearing. So the lack of consistency there is also worrying.

I can understand if they're working through this issue—gathering data, trying to understand practices in the industry, trying to understand the cheese that's out there. But to be shifting their policies without warning while they're doing that just creates a totally confusing environment. I imagine if any industry was faced with something like that, people would try to pull back and mitigate risk.

It's interesting because there's been a lot of agitation about the issue of raw milk over the last few years, and people might have imagined that we were moving toward greater acceptance of that in some ways. But it sounds like the precise opposite is happening—the way of making raw milk cheeses that was fine for 65 years is now suddenly perceived as a health hazard.

Well, I understand that media and people in the public often conflate fluid raw milk and raw milk cheese. But as a dairy farmer, I can tell you the two products are totally different, and the government does treat them differently, and they should.

You look at a cheese that's aged for two months, like Rush Creek, and I have plenty of time to test that product and prove that it's safe, which I do with every batch. Fluid raw milk ought to be consumed within a day or two—you may not have time to test every lot of fluid raw milk. The products have a different level of risk—I'm not saying that the risk for raw milk is unacceptable, but with cheeses, we can prove that they're safe, and that's an advantage that cheese will always have over milk.

Not to mention the cheesemaking process with raw or pasteurized milk is designed as a preservative technique. It's meant to preserve cheese in a safe way, just like all the other old preserving techniques like fermentation and sauerkraut and beer and wine and cured hams. There are parts of the process that are designed to be inhospitable to pathogens, for example, making it acidic or salty. None of those protections exist in fluid raw milk. It is all sort of one big public debate, but we need to be careful about confusing the two because they're very different.

Rush Creek Reserve, in 2010.

So what do you do now? Are you thinking about other ways to use the autumn milk that went into Rush Creek?

I've been at the drawing board for a new cheese for a while. And obviously those things, especially with a cheese that's ripened for a while, they don't happen overnight. So I won't be able to turn that milk into a new cheese this year.

Some of it will be turned into Pleasant Ridge Reserve [which uses summer pasture milk]. The two seasons did overlap a bit, depending on the condition of the pasture. And the other milk, we'll sell, to another local cheesemaker. So it will require a little belt-tightening on our part. But compared to the risk of our product being pulled from the shelves for some unanticipated, maybe even illegitimate reason. . . . As emotionally hard as a decision it was, when we looked at the risk, it was pretty clear.

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