Cheese producers: FDA standards too tough

By:  Ryan Blessing
Norwich Bulletin

Cheese producers in Connecticut are asking the state's Congressional delegation to lobby the federal Food and Drug Administration to relax a new dairy testing standard they say is too tough, and hurts production of artisan cheese without providing a measurable health benefit.

The testing standard applies to raw milk cheese used to make artisan cheeses. The stringent test for what's called non-toxigenic E. coli is inconsistent with internationally-recognized standards and is not a proper measure of sanitation, according to U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.

Non-toxigenic E. coli is a form of bacteria that doesn't cause disease. Regulators measure it to test the overall cleanliness of cheese.

Murphy and Courtney joined 13 representatives and eight senators in a bipartisan letter expressing their concerns to FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor.

"The new FDA standard for non-toxigenic E. coli levels in raw milk cheeses threatens to halt the growth of the raw milk cheese industry," Murphy and Courtney said in the letter. "The new standard will severely limit the production of raw milk cheeses across the country. Such a drastic step would only be justified were these cheeses presenting a demonstrable public health risk, which, to date, we have not seen evidence of."

Before a 2009 rewrite of the regulations, the FDA allowed up to 10,000 units of the bacteria per gram. Under the new standards, the administration will take disciplinary action if a product contains more than 10 units of the bacteria in three out of five samples.

Cato Corner Farm in Colchester makes all of its cheese by hand with raw milk from 45 cows. It ages and cares for the cheese in a special underground cave facility, which Murphy toured earlier this year. The farm offers specialty cheeses with names such as Hooligan, Aged Bloomsday and Desperado.

Owner Mark Gilman said the new FDA standard is arbitrary and not necessary. He points to well-defined European standards for cheese production as ones that work and protect consumers.

"This is a non-issue from a health perspective, which threatens to make it incredibly difficult for raw cheese makers, especially farmstead cheese makers," Gilman said. "The FDA should focus on clear and present dangers in our food system rather than imagined ones."