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Cheese is safe...for now

FDA changes stance on raw-milk cheese, seeks more study on rules

BRATTLEBORO—After a push-back campaign from the artisan cheese industry and at least 24 members of Congress, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced it is changing its stance on raw-milk cheese.

In its Feb. 8 Constituent Update, “FDA Is Taking a New Look at Criteria for Raw Milk Cheese,” the agency said it is “in the process of pausing its testing program for non-toxigenic E. coli in cheese."

This means, for now, those working in the raw-milk cheese industry — and those who love their wares — can breathe a sigh of relief.

“Is Vermont’s dairy industry at risk?,” an article in the Feb. 3 edition of The Commons, reported on changes the FDA made in mid-2015 regulating levels of non-toxigenic (i.e. not producing a poison) E. coli in raw-milk cheese. As cheesemakers and microbiologists argued, non-toxigenic E. coli is a natural, safe component of raw milk and raw-milk cheese, and is not the same strain of the bacteria — E. coli O157:H7 — that has made people sick.

And, if those new FDA standards remained in place, more than two-thirds of Vermont’s cheesemakers could be in danger of being shut down.

Many in the industry decried the lack of transparency, scientific process, and consistency with international standards in the FDA’s decision. What was also missing was a measurable threat to public safety posed by extant raw-milk cheesemaking standards.

‘Not all bacteria are bad’

The Vermont delegation got involved, and on Dec. 3, 2015, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, and U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders composed a letter to the FDA on behalf of raw-milk cheesemakers, asking how and why the agency changed its standards.

They convinced 21 of their colleagues in Congress, from all parties and both houses, to sign on.

It worked.

In the Feb. 8 update, the FDA stated: “We understand the concerns expressed by some cheesemakers, as well as lawmakers, and intend to engage in a scientific dialogue on these issues.”

“I see this as progress,” Welch told The Commons. He said he was pleased the FDA acknowledged that “we raised a very significant question: that any regulations and testing are science-based.”

“I think the cheese folks did a great job,” he said.

Welch praised the Vermont cheesemakers for making their case, especially at the early-December meeting in Brattleboro when FDA officials gave a presentation on the Food Safety Modernization Act.

That meeting, with FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods & Veterinary Medicine Michael Taylor, “helped get a foot in the door,” Welch said, at convincing the FDA that “not all bacteria are bad.”

“A lot of us were scratching our heads” at the FDA’s stance that low levels of non-toxigenic E. coli in raw-milk cheese poses a threat, Welch said.

Welch said there is a prevailing belief that government is numb to issues affecting its citizens, but “people deserve to have government be responsive, and quickly,” he said, also noting the relatively short length of time it took to get this issue resolved.

Cheesemakers encouraged

“We hope that this is a sign of what the future holds for our industry: a science-based regulatory approach,” said Meri Spicer, vice-president of sales and marketing for the Grafton Village Cheese Company.

With this change, Spicer said she and others in the cheese industry are encouraged that the FDA is “looking at actual science to evaluate” the cleanliness in the cheese-making process.

“That’s really all the cheesemakers have been asking for: we like regulations and oversight, but the decisions need to be based in science,” she said.

Spicer also pointed out the change in the FDA’s expressed attitude toward raw-milk cheesemakers.

She mentioned the second paragraph of the constituent update: “In response, we want to first acknowledge our respect for the work of the artisan cheesemakers who produce a wide variety of flavorful, high-quality cheeses using raw milk and our appreciation for the great care that many take to produce raw milk cheeses safely.”

“We’re pleased to see a note of appreciation and respect for artisan cheesemakers from the FDA,” Spicer said, adding, “That was encouraging.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #344 (Wednesday, February 17, 2016). This story appeared on page A2.

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