Ending the War On Artisan Cheese, Loaf + Honey

Ending the War On Artisan Cheese, is a recently published book by Dr. Catherine Donnelly. I decided to read it after seeing it on The Loaf and Honey Facebook page(you may need to scroll down a bit to find it).

Ending the War cover
The cover photo of Ending the War on Artisan Cheese photo credit Jasper Hill Farms, created by Lark Smotherton

If you are in Winnipeg, you may have been falling the ongoing saga of Loaf and Honey. Dustin Pelier and his partner Rachel Isaak have been trying for years to continue on a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. They learned how to make the cheese from Brother Albéric, a Trappist monk who learned the trade at the Trappist monastery in Oka, Quebec.

Ending the War on Trappiste Cheese
The Prairie Tradition Cheese sits in the centrer of the plate. A place of honour for an honourable cheese.

I really like Loaf + Honey’s Prairie Tradition Cheese. I’ve only bought a couple of chunks, because it sells out so quickly. Prairie Tradition is a raw-milk cheese that is hand-washed daily, and aged for 60 days. It is this process that has caused it to fall afoul of provincial regulations. As Dr. Catherine Donnelly’s book: Ending the War on Artisan Cheese demonstrates, it shouldn’t be the case. We need our provincial government health department to read this book, and get on board with Prairie Tradition Cheese.

Ending the War on Artisan Cheese: Raw Milk Cheese and  Consumer Safety

What Ending the War on Artisan Cheese shows, is that this doesn’t have to be the case. The book deals with two subjects. The first is the question of the safety pitfalls in making raw cheese, and the ways these can be dealt with. The second is how FDA regulations are based more on trade considerations than on trade considerations.

The number one take away from this book is: Raw milk artisan cheese is safe, when properly made. The second take away is: Raw milk cheese uses different processes from pasteurized milk cheese to ensure the cheese produced is safe to eat. The third take away is that these processes can easily be implemented.

Dr. Donnelly is a specialist in listeria monocytogenes. She is also a devotee of cheese, both raw milk and pasteurized. Listeria Monocytogenes is one of the bacteria that can produce harmful cultures in cheese. Others of importance are  Salmonella typhimurium, Escherichia Coli (E Coli 0157 H7), and Brucella.

These cultures can make people sick and in some cases cause death. However, the process used to make raw milk cheese is designed to kill these pathogens before the cheese reaches the public.

One thing to note is that in raw milk cheeses, these pathogen levels start out at a higher level than they do in pasteurized milk. That is one reason for the sixty day cheese making process. It helps, in most cases, to guarantee the death of those pathogens. I say most cases, because some soft cheeses, such as brie, Camembert, and Queso Fresco, need to be consumed before 60 days. As Dr. Donnelly points out, it’s illegal in France to sell Brie after 55 days, because by then the pathogens start to build up again.

Much of the information relating to these regulations can be found in the Codex Alimentarius, a document designed, among other things,  to help harmonize food safety rules around the world.

However, as Dr. Donnelly points out throughout the book, these pathogens can be killed. In fact the very processes used to create raw milk cheeses are what kills them. Also, when raw milk cheese makers fail in these practices, most can easily be corrected.

Dr. Donnelly is writing from an American perspective, where artisan cheese making only amounts to a small percentage of the market share for all cheese. On the other hand Europe, particularly France has a long history of making Artisan cheese, and these countries have enacted legislation to make sure that raw milk cheeses are as safe as possible.

When there are problems with raw milk cheeses, they are almost always related to hygienic practices among cheese makers, distributors, and retailers. Some common problems are milk that has traveled too far, or is kept at the wrong temperature. Work flow issues in the dairy making the cheese. Cross contamination in the retail shop.

Dealing with Raw Milk Challenges

So the EU, that organization that Boris Johnson and many Brits are so eager to leave, has set standards as to how raw cheese is produced and sold. Most of these relate to hygienic standards in the cheese making location.

Donnelly demonstrates through her own experiences in dealing with Artisan cheesemakers in Vermont, and surrounding areas.that when attention is paid to improving hygiene, changing the workflow direction, keeping product from being cross-contaminated, the levels of pathogens almost inevitably fall into safe ranges.

The other thing that goes along with this, is that the daily attention paid to each cheese wheel, means that the cheese makers are able to pull unhealthy cheese wheels off the shelf long before they reach the consumer.

Not all E-Coli are Created Equal

So, why is there so much trouble getting artisan cheese to the marketplace? This is where the FDA and market forces come into play. The FDA is constantly trying to impose very strict rules on cheese making. One of these is to place a great deal of importance on non-toxigenic E. Coli. As non-toxigenic implies, this strain of E-Coli is not harmful. However, it can be an indicator of unhygienic producing and processing.

As Dr. Donnelly points out, there are processes in place, that can greatly improve the hygiene of any location producing raw milk cheese. However, this isn’t happening very often. Why? Here’s where the questions of FDA behaviour come to the fore.

In Chapter 12, Dr. Donnelly shows a timeline, highlighting EU regulation changes, and FDA actions. As she demonstrates throughout the book, many of the FDAs decisions and rulings on health and safety happen to coincide with US trade disputes with the EU.

Also, as mentioned above, the codex alimentarius is designed to harmonize food regulations across the globe. Many of the FDAs decisions go against the codex.  To sum up Donnelly’s arguments against FDA actions is that they are making political decisions where scientific ones are called for.

Loaf and Honey and Ending the War on Artisan Cheese

So, what does this tell us about Loaf and Honey. Simply put: There are international health and safety practices in place, that the Manitoba Government should be using. If they simply adopt these practices Loaf and Honey would soon be able to restart producing Prairie Tradition cheese. The solution is simple, and it’s about time our provincial government implemented it.

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