Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Small Cheesemaking Operations Lead Growth in U.S. Cheese Industry

Specialty Food News today reports that while the overall U.S. cheesemaking industry is on the rise, interestingly enough, the number of small cheesemaking establishments is far outpacing the growth of larger operations in America.

According to the Census Bureau's 2012 Economic Census, between 2007 and 2012, the total number of cheesemaking establishments in the U.S. rose by 13 percent to 542, while growth in small establishments, (defined as employing up to 19 people), rose more than double that rate, by 28 percent, to 250.

The report reveals that in 2012, small cheesemaking facilities accounted for 46 percent of all cheesemaking establishments, compared with 41 percent in 2007. As for employment statistics, 44,432 people in the U.S. were employed in cheesemaking in 2012, 7 percent more than five years earlier.

The census has all sorts of raw data in it - you can view it by clicking here. It contains tidbits like this: in 2012, cheesemaking operations spent $809.9 million on capital expenditures, three-quarters of which was spent on machinery and equipment, a 37 percent jump compared to 2007.

Here in Wisconsin, these numbers come as no surprise. Cheese factories have heavily reinvested in their facilities in the past few years. Official estimates from the governor's office put the number at $230 million in private investment in Wisconsin’s dairy industry since 2010.

And, Wisconsin continues to lead the nation in the production of specialty cheese. In May, the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that specialty cheese accounted for 22 percent of Wisconsin’s total cheese production in 2013, an increase of 29 million pounds over the year before.

Just as with dairy farming, there is room - especially in Wisconsin - for cheese plants of all sizes - big, small and in-between. While the mammoth plants churn out the state's cash crop of pizza mozzarella, smaller plants help put Wisconsin on the map for high quality artisan cheese. The past two U.S. Champion cheesemakers are both from Wisconsin, and are both small operations: Katie Hedrich Fuhrmann of LaClare Farms and Marieke Penterman of Holland's Family Cheese.

The pair are part of a growing trend. The USDA reported in May that of Wisconsin’s 126 cheese plants, last year, 93 manufactured at least one type of specialty cheese, up from 80 plants in 2007. You can view a handy dandy table of specialty cheese production in Wisconsin by clicking here.

This is an exciting time to be in the cheese business, as more folks are continually joining the specialty cheese ranks. Not even counted in the census numbers is the growing trend in Wisconsin to forgo building a factory and instead partner with established creameries to rent space and churn out award-winning artisan cheese. A few examples come to mind:

  • Cesar's Cheese: Cheesemaker Cesar Luis won the gold medal at the World Championship Cheese Contest for his string cheese this spring. He and wife Heydi own their own cheese vat, but rent space at and buy milk from Sassy Cow Creamery near Columbus.
  • Landmark Creamery: Cheesemaker Anna Landmark is crafting small-batch cow, sheep and water buffalo creations, such as Petit Nuage, Tallgrass and Arista at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain and Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee. She was recently profiled in Edible Madison
  • Creme de la Coulee Artisan Cheese: Cheesemaker Bill Anderson is making artisan cheeses at Willow Creek Cheese in Fremont. His new St. Jenifer is a semi-soft washed-rind cheese, made in the style of a French Munster.
  • PastureLand Cooperative: Dairy farmer Bert Paris and four partner farms haul their grass-fed milk to cheesemakers where it is made into specialty cheeses, such as Grass Valley and Grass Kase. Both are available in Madison at Willy St. Coop and Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale.
  • Timothy Farmhouse Cheeses: Karen and Tim Kelley ship milk to Cheesemaker Katie Furhmann at LaClare Farms, where it is crafted into cheddars and BallyByron, a new American Original inspired by Double Gloucester.
  • Red Barn Family Farms: Veterinarian Tim and Paula Homan ship their Red Barn dairy milk both to Springside Cheese (where it's made into World Champion Heritage Weis Cheddar) and to LaClare Farms, where Katie Fuhrmann crafts it into Cupola, a new American Original.
  • Koepke Family Farms: Dairy farmers John and Kim Koepke in Oconomowoc ship milk to Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, where it's made into the LaBelle line of Gouda-style cheeses.
  • Bleu Mont Dairy: last but not least, there is the venerable Cheesemaker Willi Lehner, who perfected the don't-build-a-cheese-factory-model, and makes cheese at four different Wisconsin factories. His Bandaged Cheddar and Big Sky Grana were runner-up for Best in Show last year at the American Cheese Society.
What an exciting time to be a cheese eater in Wisconsin! With more than 600 types, styles and varieties of cheese to choose from, we cheese geeks have never had it so good. Here's looking forward to the next five years of cheesemaking growth in America's Dairyland.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Got Cheese History? 100 Cheese Factories Now Documented

Newcomer cheesemaker Anna Landmark shares cheese with veteran
cheesemaker Willi Lehner, whose father emigrated from Switzerland
and managed Rysers Cheese Factory in Mt. Horeb for 21 years.

More than 100 cheese factories in southwestern Dane County are now mapped and remembered with extensive information and photos online, thanks to the Mount Horeb Area Historical Society.

The Society unveiled the new cheese factory website on Sunday in downtown Mt. Horeb on the site of the former Henze cheese warehouse, now Zalucha Studios. Next door is the former Rysers Cheese Factory, today home to the Grumpy Troll Brew Pub, where Bleu Mont cheesemaker Willi Lehner's father - also Willi Lehner - was the managing cheesemaker for 21 years. It seems downtown Mt. Horeb, similar to much of rural Wisconsin, was once a cheese mecca.

The website is extensive, noting the years each factory operated, the types of cheese crafted, each cheesemaker's name and the years they made cheese at the facility, as well as extensive notes on what was happening throughout the years at each location. It's a literal treasure trove of cheese history.

So what makes someone want to create a website detailing all the cheese factories that were once in their area? Well, sometimes to understand the present, it's helpful to understand the past. So this past winter, Society volunteers created database inventories of the area’s schools, cheese factories, churches and cemeteries.

“We found a map where it was just black with dots,” archivist Shan Thomas said of an early 20th century map that located factories in the areas surrounding Mount Horeb. “They were everywhere.”

The web resource actually began with the Society mapping schools in the area. Volunteers identified 52 - yes, 52 - schools in the area that now makes up just the Mount Horeb Area School District. Amazingly enough, 40 of them still stand, and were photographed for the project.

The Society’s schoolhouse project was the subject of an article in the Wisconsin State Journal last year, and the article piqued the interest of Doug Norgord,  a Mount Horeb resident who owns a mapping solutions company. Norgord contacted the Society and offered his services for free.  Through the technology of his company, Geographic Techniques LLC, the project took on further life.

Norgord was part of a perfect storm of people, all Mount Horeb area residents, qualified to pull off this project: Thomas, a former archivist at Luther College; former Mount Horeb school administrator and principal John Pare; computer programmer Merel Black; and Brynn Bruijn, an international photographer whose work has appeared in books and in magazines such as National Geographic and Town and Country. The volunteers also worked with the Mount Horeb Landmarks Foundation and the historical societies of Blue Mounds and Perry township.

Pare and Bruijn scouted the countryside for former schools and sought permission from homeowners who now live on those properties to photograph and document the properties. Once the volunteers got going, they saw a pattern – clustered with the schools were cheese factories, churches and cemeteries. Ask anyone who has grown up in a small town in Wisconsin, and they'll tell you the most prominent features are the school, the bar, the cemetary, and the old cheese factory on the edge of town now turned into a house. In fact, most former cheese and butter making facilities have today become private residences and are easy to spot because of their elongated style of architecture.

“What we notice is that these little areas were communities,” Black said. “They rode on horseback, they’d drop the milk off and drop the kids off at school.”

Cheese makers at the Mount Horeb Creamery and Cheese Company, taken
on Sept. 15, 1939. The creamery building now houses the Grumpy Troll Brew
Pub. Photo courtesy of the Mt. Horeb Historical Society.
On hand Sunday to celebrate the revival of cheese factory history were several area cheesemakers, including Willi Lehner, who said he often helped his dad clean at the Rysers Cheese Factory in downtown Mt. Horeb. "My dad would often remind me that for the first two years of his apprenticeship in Switzerland, all he did was clean. He didn't get to actually make cheese until year three."

Also in the crowd was southwestern Wisconsin native Diana Kalscheur Murphy of Dreamfarm, who now makes amazing goat's milk cheeses on her farm near Cross Plains, Anna Landmark of Landmark Creamery in Albany, who is making sheep, cow and mixed milk cheeses at both Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain and Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee, and Tony Hook of Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point, home to world champion cheeses including an array of aged cheddars and blues. In fact, Hook’s brother, Jerry, and sister, Julie, both cheesemakers at Hook’s, are actually alumni of Mount Horeb High School and Jerry still lives in Mount Horeb. Yes, it is a small world.

Each of the cheesemakers spoke for a few minutes, talking about their operations and remembering their family histories. A crowd of about 75 people noshed on local cheese and drank local beer, reminiscing of all cheesy things past and present.

One cheese not represented at the gathering was the stinky granddaddy of them all. The crowd got a chuckle when one attendee asked Tony Hook his favorite cheese. "The answer might surprise you," Hook said. "It's Limburger, made today at only one plant in the nation - Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe." Just goes to show you that no matter how many things change, one of the oldest cheeses in Wisconsin is still front and center.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

FDA Further "Clarifies" Stance on Aging Cheese on Wooden Boards

After dozens of U.S. major news outlets did an outstanding job of reporting news on the FDA clarifying its position on the use of wooden boards when it comes to aging cheese, the agency today further clarified its earlier clarification.

Here is the FDA Statement:

"The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA requirement in effect that addresses this issue. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.

In the interest of public health, the FDA's current regulations state that utensils and other surfaces that contact food must be "adequately cleanable" and properly maintained. Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings. FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.

The FDA will engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving."

This back-stepping in both tone and message is welcome news for the hundreds of cheesemakers across the country who have invested their life savings in making premium artisanal cheese and aging it on wooden boards.

I want to give a special shout-out to every consumer who wrote a letter, signed a petition, left a comment on a blog or Facebook page and generally made standing up for artisan food a main-stream American issue. In the end, everything is politics. Thank you for taking a stand. We will most certainly need you in the future.

Cheese for life!

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Game Changer: FDA Rules No Wooden Boards in Cheese Aging

A sense of disbelief and distress is quickly rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community, as the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week announced it will not permit American cheesemakers to age cheese on wooden boards.

Recently, the FDA inspected several New York state cheesemakers and cited them for using wooden surfaces to age their cheeses. The New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets' Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services, which (like most every state in the U.S., including Wisconsin), has allowed this practice, reached out to FDA for clarification on the issue. A response was provided by Monica Metz, Branch Chief of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition's (CFSAN) Dairy and Egg Branch.

In the response, Metz stated that the use of wood for cheese ripening or aging is considered an unsanitary practice by FDA, and a violation of FDA's current Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations. Here's an excerpt:
  
"Microbial pathogens can be controlled if food facilities engage in good manufacturing practice. Proper cleaning and sanitation of equipment and facilities are absolutely necessary to ensure that pathogens do not find niches to reside and proliferate. Adequate cleaning and sanitation procedures are particularly important in facilities where persistent strains of pathogenic microorganisms like Listeria monocytogenes could be found. The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP requirements, which require that "all plant equipment and utensils shall be so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable, and shall be properly maintained." 21 CFR 110.40(a). Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized. The porous structure of wood enables it to absorb and retain bacteria, therefore bacteria generally colonize not only the surface but also the inside layers of wood. The shelves or boards used for aging make direct contact with finished products; hence they could be a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms in the finished products."  

The most interesting part of the FDA's statement it that it does not consider this to be a new policy, but rather an enforcement of an existing policy. And worse yet, FDA has reiterated that it does not intend to change this policy.

In an email to industry professionals, Rob Ralyea, Senior Extension Associate in the Department of Food Science and the Pilot Plant Manager at Cornell University in New York, says: "According to the FDA this is merely proper enforcement of the policy that was already in place. While the FDA has had jurisdiction in all food plants, it deferred cheese inspections almost exclusively to the states. This has all obviously changed under FSMA."

Ah, FSMA. For those of you not in the know, the Food Safety Modernization Act is the most sweeping reform of American food safety laws in generations. It was signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011 and aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it.

While most cheesemakers have, perhaps, begrudgingly accepted most of what has been coming down the FSMA pike, including the requirement of HACCP plans and increased federal regulations and inspections, no one expected this giant regulation behemoth to virtually put a stop to innovation in the American artisanal cheese movement.

Many of the most awarded and well-respected American artisan cheeses are currently aged on wooden boards. American Cheese Society triple Best in Show winner Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin is cured on wooden boards. Likewise for award-winners Cabot Clothbound in Vermont, current U.S. Champion cheese Marieke Gouda, and 2013 Best in Show Runner-Up Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar.

Wisconsin cheesemaker Chris Roelli says the FDA's "clarified" stance on using wooden boards is a "potentially devastating development" for American cheesemakers. He and his family have spent the past eight years re-building Roelli Cheese into a next-generation American artisanal cheese factory. Just last year, he built what most would consider to be a state-of-the-art aging facility into the hillside behind his cheese plant. And Roelli, like hundreds of American artisanal cheesemaekrs, has developed his cheese recipes specifically to be aged on wooden boards.

"The very pillar that we built our niche business on is the ability to age our cheese on wood planks, an art that has been practiced in Europe for thousands of years," Roelli says. Not allowing American cheesemakers to use this practice puts them "at a global disadvantage because the flavor produced by aging on wood can not be duplicated. This is a major game changer for the dairy industry in Wisconsin, and many other states."

As if this weren't all bad enough, the FDA has also "clarified" - I'm really beginning to dislike that word - that in accordance with FSMA, a cheesemaker importing cheese to the United States is subject to the same rules and inspection procedures as American cheesemakers.

Therefore, Cornell University's Ralyea says, "It stands to reason that if an importer is using wood boards, the FDA would keep these cheeses from reaching our borders until the cheese maker is in compliance. The European Union authorizes and allows the use of wood boards. Further, the great majority of cheeses imported to this country are in fact aged on wooden boards and some are required to be aged on wood by their standard of identity (Comte, Beaufort and Reblochon, to name a few). Therefore, it will be interesting to see how these specific cheeses will be dealt with when it comes to importation into the United States."

Ralyea continues: "While most everyone agrees that Listeria is a major concern to the dairy industry, it appears that some food safety agencies interpret the science to show that wood boards can be maintained in a sanitary fashion to allow for their use for cheese aging, while others (e.g., the US FDA) believe that a general ban of any wooden materials in food processing facilities is the better approach to assure food safety. At this point, it seems highly unlikely that any new research data or interpretations will change the FDA policies in place."

In fact, many research papers do in fact conclude that wooden boards are safe. In 2013, the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research published a paper on the subject, concluding: "Considering the beneficial effects of wood boards on cheese ripening and rind formation, the use of wood boards does not seem to present any danger of contamination by pathogenic bacteria as long as a thorough cleaning procedure is followed." You can read the whole report on pages 8-9 by clicking on this link.

Interesting side note: Health Canada does not currently have any regulations prohibiting aging and ripening cheese on wood, so apparently if we want to eat most American or European artisan cheeses, we'll need to drive across the border to do so.

So what's next? The American Cheese Society has mobilized its Regulatory & Academic Committee to learn more about this issue, and to ensure its members' interests are represented. The ACS promises to keep us apprised of developments. In the meantime, if you are a cheesemaker, and your operation is inspected and cited for the use of wooden surfaces, please contact the ACS office (720-328-2788 or info@cheesesociety.org).