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Valley News: Lawmakers Oppose New Rules For Cheese

December 5, 2015
In The News

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling

White River Junction — New regulations from the Food and Drug Administration could make it difficult for artisan cheesemakers to stay in business, according to the state’s congressional delegation.

U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, all Democrats, sent a letter to FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor on Thursday opposing the regulations, which dramatically lower the amount of non-pathogenic E. coli bacteria allowed in cheese made from raw milk.

According to the letter — which was also signed by New Hampshire’s two senators and U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H. — the standards “could ban many age-old recipes for raw milk cheese and severely harm artisan cheese producers” in New England.

In the recently updated version of the FDA’s Compliance Program Guidance Manual, the federal agency reduces the allowable limit for E coli from 10,000 units per gram to 10 units per gram.

Not to be confused with the toxic strains of E. coli that cause severe illness and even, in some cases, death, non-pathogenic E. coli is often used as a bellwether of sanitary conditions.


Because it occurs naturally in feces, but not in milk, the presence of the bacteria is used as an indicator of “insanitation during processing,” according to the FDA’s Compliance Policy Guide. “The presence of Escherichia coli in milk or other dairy product means that the milk or dairy product was exposed either directly or indirectly to feces,” the guide reads.

But the letter from the lawmakers says the science doesn’t support the downward revision in allowable limits.

“Though this may sound like a positive development, non-toxic E. coli is not a scientifically supported indicator of sanitation level in raw-milk cheeses,” wrote Welch in a letter urging other lawmakers to oppose the change. “Reducing the presence of this non-toxic microbe to FDA’s proposed level is very difficult to achieve and could severely limit the types of cheese available on the market.”

The lawmakers and cheesemakers opposed to the change cite the recommendations of the International Commission on Microbiological Specification for Foods, which supports the more permissive standard.

“As a cheesemaking community we are not asking for ‘less’ regulation, we are asking for ‘good’ regulation that is developed transparently and based on solid science,” wrote Mateo Kehler, of Greensboro-based Jasper Hill Farm.

The letter is the latest salvo in an ongoing battle between food safety regulators and small food producers, who say the same regulations that make sense for large corporations can be stifling and unnecessary for independent operators. Jeannine Kilbridge, owner of Cobb Hill Cheese in Hartland, said she needed to learn more before she would know whether the strict new standards would affect her cheese, which is made from raw milk and dried on metal racks before being sold to a variety of outlets, including the grocery chain Whole Foods.

But she did say she’s had to jump through an increasing number of hoops since she took the helm at Cobb Hill six years ago.

“It’s not only the federal government,” she said.

“We have to jump through the hoops that are being put out for us from the distributors, and the larger chain stores, too.”

To meet one recent requirement — that she be audited for compliance with a portion of the Food Safety Modernization Act — she opted out of hiring a compliance specialist for $3,500 and instead did the paperwork herself, for which she took four training classes.

While she said she supports the idea of food safety, she said she thinks the requirements have gone too far, as was illustrated during a recent state inspection.

“I did think it was overkill, for sure,” she said. “We don’t have any pests. We don’t have mice running around. But they want you to have a policy and all this stuff in place just in case. It is cumbersome if you don’t have the problem in the first place.”

Now, she said, she’s required to perform regular inspections of the facilities herself, and document the presence of any mice or rodent droppings.

“I have to write it down if I see anything,” she said. “And I have to write it down if I didn’t see anything.”

Two lawmakers from Maine also signed the letter.