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Food Police Send Message to Raw Milk Cheese Makers: You Can Run But You Can’t Hide; Behind FTCLDF Criticism

By David E. Gumpert

From The Complete Patient*

Many dairies that would love to sell raw milk have opted instead for the attractive income, and seeming security, of producing raw milk cheeses instead. They figure they can still get the equivalent of $10 to or more a gallon of milk by producing artisinal cheese, and avoid the hassles with regulators so long as they age it 60 days as required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. I’m an irregular buyer of a number of these cheeses made from raw cow’s, goat’s, and sheep’s milk, and they’re wonderful.

But enforcement of laws and regulations affecting raw milk are made to be changed, especially if it seems that farmers are carving out an attractive market niche and, horror of horrors, actually making farming profitable.  Presumably the raw dairy cops at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have been waiting for an illness outbreak among consumers of 60-day-plus aged raw milk cheeses, but with none occurring, they’re moving ahead to protect us regardless.

According to a report in an industry publication, Cheese Reporter, a top dairy official at the FDA, Stephen Sundlof, director of its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) believes that the 60-day aging period “is not effective in reducing pathogens in raw milk cheeses.” There needs to be “some other risk management steps” that could be applied. Sundlof said at a dairy conference last month. What makes him think that the 60-day period isn’t effective in reducing pathogens? A little birdie must have told him so.

A change in the aging period regulation could put a crimp on production of a number of raw milk soft cheeses like brie and camembert, among others. Some producers already struggle with the 60-day aging requirement, since certain cheeses are best sold sooner than that, and letting them age for 60 days simply reduces their viable shelf lives.

Moreover, the FDA isn’t proposing to extend the aging period, but rather to require processing of the milk, including pasteurization of milk for certain cheeses. Interestingly, another processing option mentioned is “probiotics or competitive exclusion products.” That’s curious, since I understood the FDA didn’t recognize “competitive exclusion” as a means of ensuring raw milk safety. But pasteurization would no doubt compromise the taste and texture, and perhaps the nutritional value, of a number of soft cheeses…and zap another raw nutrient-dense food.

The phenomenon of regulators arbitrarily making trouble for raw milk producers in the absence of illnesses is becoming ever more common. In the Cheese Reporter article, Sundlof is quoted as expressing concerns about the “continued and escalating interest in raw milk consumption.” I love his use of the word “escalating” rather than “growing” or “expanding.” Escalating is a fear-oriented word, as in escalating danger. I don’t ordinarily think of these guys are literary, but clearly Sundlof picks his vocabulary carefully (including when he talks about farmers becoming “pretty clever” in using cow share arrangements). 

FDA continues to set the tone, indeed, lead the way, in continuing to “investigate” raw dairies, and encourage state agriculture and public health officials to do the same. The National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association (NICFA) reports on a Pennsylvania Amish farmer who last week greeted two FDA agents investigating his dairy production. As I reported in my article, other states have taken up the FDA’s initiative.

Okay, the discussion about the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund was a little rough-and-tumble, but maybe that’s because it’s a discussion that’s been long overdue. 

I’ve alluded to farmer criticisms of FTCLDF in a few previous posts. In Wisconsin, the criticisms have bubbled more broadly, and become louder than in any other state.

I appreciate lola granola’s sense of frustration with trying to run a dairy in the midst of the upheaval created by Wisconsin’s regulators. My sense is that the criticisms of FTCLDF grow partly out of unrealistic expectations. When FTCLDF was established in 2007, it conveyed a sense that it would defend all members under fire from government regulators. I just reviewed its member benefits, and it says it provides “potential legal representation to defend distribution of raw milk and other farm products directly to the consumer.” In other words, it will provide legal advice to all members, but will in the final analysis decide which cases it wants to defend, and how it will defend them.

The criticisms also grow out of the fact that FTCLDF is a young and maturing organization. The very concept of an organization dedicated to defending raw dairies and other small farms distributing direct to consumers is a new one. It obviously needs time to gain the necessary experience to feel out the legal system, and determine what kind of load it can handle…and can afford to handle.

I also want to second what several readers have suggested about Pete Kennedy and other lawyers involved with FTCLDF. I’ve come to know Pete very well in the course of reporting on raw milk, and he is about as committed as anyone can be. He’s available to farmers evenings and weekends, and travels to many less-than-glamorous conferences and events—often with his young family in tow—to rally support and inform farmers and consumers alike about what’s happening on the legal front lines. I don’t sense any pocket lining going on—quite the opposite.

I’d also like to second what Bob Hayles, Steve Bemis, Alexis Bogue, and others say about the importance of contacting legislators concerning new legislation and enforcement of existing regulations affecting raw milk and other foods. If there’s nothing going on in your state, contact your Congressional representatives in Washington about opposing the pending federal food safety legislation (which could come up for a vote in the Senate any time in the next few weeks), which will give the FDA vast new powers to limit our food choices beyond the considerable power the agency already has, and applies ruthlessly.

No action is too small. In Framingham, MA, which has been the center of a debate about whether to license a dairy near Boston to sell raw milk, citizens have taken to circulating a petition urging local public health officials to stop stalling and let Doug Stephan sell milk. Politicians and regulators alike notice citizen involvement and opinion.

*This article was originally published on The Complete Patient.

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