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Barton Chronicle: FDA Waives Cheese Making Regulation

April 6, 2016
In The News

By Joseph Gresser

Over the past couple of years U.S. Representative Peter Welch and congressional friends from both sides of the aisle have succeeded in rolling back Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules that Mr. Welch has said could have harmed Vermont businesses.

Perhaps more importantly, Vermont’s lone congressman said Monday that he expects the FDA will work with food producers in crafting new regulations that will have the intended effect of protecting the food supply without harming small businesses.

Two years ago, the FDA worried artisan cheese makers when it moved to ban the use of wooden shelving in cheese caves. The move was a reaction, or in the cheese makers’ view, an overreaction, to the case of a New York State cheese producer who repeatedly failed sanitation inspections. 

Around the same time, brewers were notified that they would be barred from giving spent grain to farmers for animal feed. Instead, brewers were told to dry the grain, bag it, and send it to a landfill. 

That would burden brewers with a large new cost, and harm farmers who would use inexpensive or free food for their livestock. 

In both cases Mr. Welch wrote a letter to the FDA asking regulators to restudy the issue, and he found co-signers who had artisan brewers and cheese makers in their districts.

In both cases, the FDA decided to reconsider its initial decision, leaving the producers able to continue their previous way of doing business.

That period of peace did not last long for the cheese makers, who discovered a provision in the regulations intended to enforce the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) passed by Congress in 2011.

The new regulation would have required the amount of non-toxigenic e coli bacteria allowed in raw milk cheese cut to a ten-thousandth of the previously allowed level. 

When the regulations were first published Professor Catherine Donnelly of the University of Vermont’s Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences said they made no sense. 

The non-toxigenic portion of the bacteria’s means it is not harmful, Ms. Donnelly said.

Ms. Donnelly said the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods (ICMSF), advised against testing for the bacteria in raw milk cheese, said Ms. Donnelly, who was director of the Vermont Institute for Artisanal Cheese, which stopped giving workshops in 2013.

“The ICMSF says don’t test for e coli in raw milk cheese,” she said. “You can expect it to be there.”

In fact, she said, there is evidence that the bacteria contribute to the flavor of raw milk cheese.

The cheese makers, including Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm, again turned to Mr. Welch, who found a group of his colleagues, including Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, willing to sign a letter on the cheese makers’ behalf.

Their letter had the desired effect, and Michael Taylor, the FDA deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, traveled to Vermont.

“The deputy administrator visited cheese makers, which allowed him to see cheese makers are completely committed to safe practices,” said Mr. Welch.

Since his visit the FDA “waived implementation of the regulation,” he said.

Mr. Welch said the FDA will review rules governing cheese making with input from cheese makers.

We need regulations, but they need to be practical and effective,” the Congessman said.

The rule intended on non-toxigenic e coli would have put cheese makers out of business, he said.

Well-crafted regulations could achieve the goal of insuring public health while enhancing the economic prosperity of cheese makers, said Mr. Welch.

He said he is interested in relieving unnecessary regulatory burdens on other Vermont business. For instance, small banks in the state are having to comply with regulations designed to curb the practices of giant financial institutions, the Congressman said.

Mr. Welch said he is looking for ways to relieve Vermont banks of heavy-handed oversight while still making sure customers, depositors, and the public are protected.