This weekend the Washington Post and New York Times took a closer look at a development mentioned in this space a while back and in a related Cato audio, namely growing federal pressure on small producers of artisan and farmstead cheeses. Here’s the Post:
….artisanal cheesemakers, and their boosters in the local-food movement, say they are being unfairly targeted. They say the FDA does not understand their craft and is trying to impose standards better suited for industrial food companies. …
Listeria is ubiquitous in the environment, but the FDA has a zero-tolerance rule for it in ready-to-eat food such as cheese. If the bacteria are present, the food is considered adulterated and cannot be sold. Some countries, including cheese-loving France, tolerate minute amounts of listeria in food.
Why can’t we in America enjoy at least as much freedom at our dinner tables as the French?
Many artisan cheese producers favor the use of raw (unpasteurized) milk and the rules on that subject are coming in particular to (as it were) a non-boil. The Food and Drug Administration has long required that cheeses made from raw milk be aged for 60 days in hopes of killing all potentially harmful bacteria. Trouble is, it’s been known for a while that 60 days is not long enough to guarantee that the survival rate of such bacteria is 0.00000 percent. Here’s the Times:
The F.D.A. has not tipped its hand [on its review of the aging rule], but some in the industry fear that raw milk cheese could be banned altogether or that some types of cheese deemed to pose a higher safety risk could no longer be made with raw milk. Others say they believe the aging period may be extended, perhaps to 90 days. That could make it difficult or impossible for cheesemakers to continue using raw milk for some popular cheese styles, like blue cheese or taleggio-type cheeses, that may not lend themselves to such lengthy aging.
“A very important and thriving section of the American agricultural scene is in danger of being compromised or put out of business if the 60-day minimum were to be raised or if raw milk cheeses were to be entirely outlawed,” said Liz Thorpe, a vice president of Murray’s Cheese, a Manhattan retailer where about half the cheese is made with raw milk.
As Virginia Postrel pointed out the other day in a Wall Street Journal piece, the artisan food folks are relatively lucky: “proponents of small-scale farming are organized, ideological, and well represented in the elite media”. Other producers victimized by overreaching regulation have much more trouble getting their voices heard in New York and Washington. That’s one reason small food producers were able to achieve at least a limited and modest carve-out in the recent federal food safety bill, while small producers of children’s apparel and other craft goods continue to flounder without relief under the impossible strictures of CPSIA.
Speaking of the Times, I think it sums up everything wrong with the world that Mark Bittman has quit his stellar food column to start a NYT politics column that begins with a “manifesto” whose planks include the following public policy proposal:
Encourage and subsidize home cooking. (Someday soon, I’ll write about my idea for a new Civilian Cooking Corps.) When people cook their own food, they make better choices.
Talk about artists in uniform. Also speaking of the Times, reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg quotes me today on Wal-Mart’s nutrition deal with Michelle Obama, which takes a series of changes the giant retailer might well have been considering anyway for market reasons, rolls it together with some long-pursued public policy objectives like getting the opportunity to open stores in big cities despite union resistance, and clothes it all in a First Lady endorsement. Clever, no?