Monday, November 22, 2010

Artisan cheese maker at center of food safety battle

A Pacific Northwest cheese maker has become the center of the controversy surrounding the effect of proposed food safety rules on small farmers.  Kelli Estrella, owner of the Estrella Family Creamery who makes cheese from the milk of her 36 cows and 40 goats and sells it at farmers’ markets, recently drew the attention of the Food and Drug Administration after tests found listeria in some of her cheese. Estrella refused to agree to a broad recall of her products, William Neuman of The New York Times reports.

"Issues of food safety and small food producers were at the fore in Washington, D.C., this week as senators struck a deal that would exempt small producers from some of the rules that would be imposed by a sweeping food safety bill," Neuman writes. "A vote is expected after Thanksgiving on the long-awaited legislation." In Estrella's case, no illnesses have been linked to her cheese, though listeria is a sometimes deadly bacteria that is particularly harmful to the very young and very old.

"There is fuel for all sides in Ms. Estrella’s predicament: it shows that even food from a revered artisan producer can pose risks, while demonstrating the pitfalls for regulators who may be viewed as heavy-handed," Neuman writes. FDA began testing soft cheeses like brie and mozzarella for listeria in April and found bacteria in 24 of the 102 facilities it visited. More than half of the 24 facilities where bacteria was found were artisanal producers, Neuman reports.

"When you’ve got people that make good cheese, you want them to be successful," said Claudia Coles, the food safety program manager for the Washington State Department of Agriculture. "But our first premise is, we don’t want people marketing an unsafe product." Seattle food safety lawyer William Marler told Neuman he was puzzled by the reaction of Estrella's supporters. "I just don’t know how they make the leap from the government trying to do the right thing for public health to 'they’re food Nazis in the pocket of big agribusiness,'" he said. (Read more)

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