Friday, August 15, 2014

Rush Creek Reserve Production Stopped By FDA Rule Uncertainty

Andy Hatch with one of his first experimental batches of
Rush Creek Reserve on May 20, 2010. The cheese was
officially released that fall to great acclaim. Photo by
Jeanne Carpenter
Uncertainty over how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will rule in regards to a number of pending raw milk cheese regulations has claimed its first official victim: Rush Creek Reserve by Uplands Cheese near Dodgeville, Wisconsin.

In an email to industry professionals this morning, Uplands co-owner and lead cheesemaker Andy Hatch broke the sad news that he will not be making Rush Creek this year.

"It's disappointing news, I know, and we hope that it's not permanent. Food safety officials have been unpredictable, at best, in their recent treatment of soft, raw-milk cheeses, and until our industry is given clear and consistent guidance, we are forced to stop making these cheeses," Andy said.

Andy added it's not a decision he and his team came to easily. "Hopefully, our government officials will soon agree on how to treat traditional cheesemaking, and we can all return to the cheeses that are so important to us."

So what would make one of America's most awarded cheese companies stop production of a cheese that debuted four years ago to great acclaim and that the New York Times described as "fluent and satiny, with a rich, slightly grassy aroma and a mild flavor that hints of smoke and pork."?

Let us count the ways:

1. The FDA is currently reviewing the 60-day aging rule it imposed in 1949 on American cheesemakers making raw milk cheeses, with many academics speculating the rule will be increased to 90 or 120 aging days within the next year. For an excellent recap and history of how the current 60-day raw milk cheese rule came into being, check out this article by Bill Marler. Remember, Rush Creek Reserve is a raw milk cheese aged 60 days. It is patterned on the magnificent Vacherin Mont d'Or, of which I consumed an entire wheel at one sitting while in London on April 4. No regrets.

2. The newest focus of FDA food safety officials appears to be enforcement of non-toxigenic E.Coli levels in raw milk cheese. Unbeknownst to almost anyone in the industry, in 2010, the FDA changed the standard (see top of page 7) for non-toxigenic, E.Coli in raw milk from  less than 10,000 to  less than 10 MPN per gram. This happened even after the FDA's own policy review team (see top of page 7) in 2009 suggested lowering it to only "100 MPN per gram in two or more subsamples or greater than 1,000 MPN per gram in one or more subsamples." The FDA has begun to enforce this new policy by purchasing raw milk cheeses from distributors, testing them for pathogens, and then showing up at cheese factories for a 3-day investigative inspection. Every cheesemaker I talked to says it is virtually impossible to consistently produce a raw milk cheese with less than 10 parts of non-toxigenic E. Coli per gram. Goodbye, raw milk cheese.

3. Aging cheese on wooden boards may or may not be a dead issue. Two months ago, after a mid-level FDA bureaucrat declared the agency would no longer permit American cheeses to be aged on wooden boards, the entire U.S. cheese eating population erupted in an uproar that made the FDA back down just three days later. In Wisconsin alone, 33 million pounds of cheese are aged on wooden boards, including Rush Creek Reserve.

So to recap, between raw-milk aging rules, new pathogen policies, and the threat of whether the FDA is really backing down on the use of wooden boards, one of America's great cheeses is no more. The death of Rush Creek Reserve should act as the canary in the coal mine for all American raw milk artisan cheeses, because just as our great American artisan cheese movement is in serious full swing, the FDA has basically declared a war on raw milk cheese.

P.S. Mind you, of course, the FDA pubicly insists they have nothing against raw milk cheese. At the American Cheese Society conference in Sacramento in July, a total of seven - yes seven - officials from the FDA politely attended a public luncheon after meeting privately with the ACS board of directors. Their fearless leader, Mike Taylor, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, spoke to us industry professionals for 45 minutes at the luncheon. What he said can best be summed up with his opening words: "We are from the government and we're here to help you."

6 comments:

TP said...

Rulings should be based on evidence and practical outcomes. What a shame for Rush Creek and Cheesemaker Andy!

The House Mouse said...

As usual, great post. When I spoke with Andy, he just sounded so sad, like any other artist who has been sidelined, even if it is just partially. Here's hoping this will only be temporary and that we will all be able to indulge in the goodness of Rush Creek next year. Stay Cheesy, my friend. Stay Cheesy!

Andy Hatch said...

Thanks for the support, Jeanne.

One point I want to emphasize is that this isn't a reaction to any problematic inspection or test result here. We had a full FDA inspection this summer, complete with cheese sampling, and everything went just fine, as it has every time in the past. We've always had positive interactions with FDA and state inspectors, and we certainly don't blame them for our frustrations.

This is preemptive caution in the face of uncertain regulatory standards. We have no problem meeting today's standards, but I have no confidence that those standards will be the same six weeks from now. When a few years ago we heard that the FDA was going to take a look at the 60-day rule, most of us thought, ok - they'll collect data for a year or two, publish their findings, publish a rule change proposal, open it up to a few months of public comment, and then issue a rule with an effective date a year or two down the road. This is pretty much standard procedure.

Instead, we're seeing rule changes (or reinterpretations, if that's what the new approach to wood boards is) happening instantly and without warning. How are we supposed to operate in those conditions, let alone make plans for the future? How can you kick a field goal if the goal posts keep moving? Deciding not to make Rush Creek isn't a political statement or a cry for pity - it's just a precautionary business decision in response to the unpredictable regulatory climate. Like everyone else in the industry, we hope that things will clear up soon so we can go back to working within an understood set of rules.

Andy Hatch
Uplands Cheese

Anne Topham said...

The artisan cheesemakers need support and a huge outcry from customers and all those who treasure their efforts to create and perpetuate cheeses with real taste, the tastes of their place and origin.
It appears to me that the furor about the wooden boards issue was at least partially responsible for the FDA's appearance at and participation in the American Cheese Society Conference in California this year.
The economic impact of the uncertainty caused by the FDA actions and/or proposed actions is especially difficult for many of the artisan cheese producers who are smaller operations. The sense of threat can be very chilling.
No cheesemaker I know wants to produce or sell an unsafe cheese. Is there science to support the changes the FDA has made or is thinking of instituting? What scientific studies are there that can guide both the FDA and the cheese producers?
Thanks, Andy, for making your decision and the reasons behind it public. The Rush Creek Reserve will be sorely missed this year!

itsparker said...

What can we do as the public to demand accountability for these decisions? Who do I call? Who do I email? I agree that rulings should be based on evidence and practical outcomes. Did anyone every get sick from Rush Creek reserve? I certainly never did. Tell me how I can help!! Don't mess with my cheese please, unless it's unsafe and you can prove it!

Dawn said...

Why are we allowed to eat raw oysters, raw red meat, uncooked vegetables, our own cooking (with no licensing practicals)? AND drink raw milk, but not have access to raw-milk cheeses! This is crazy!