(Note: The American Cheese Society requested I remove its logo, which had originally accompanied this post, from my blog.)
In a war, you are either a collaborator, or a resister.
A journalist who has been writing about the Russian rock group, Pussy Riot, made that statement during an interview on NPR yesterday, and I immediately thought about the American Cheese Society. Its a trade group that has capitalized on the rapidly expanding interest in artisanal cheeses, many made from raw milk; during the eight years from 2003 to 2012, its membership more than doubled from 776 to more than 1,500 members.
The ACS trumpeted the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month included it among dairy organizations invited to a conference call December 19, where the agency announced it was launching a year-long pilot program to test for pathogens in raw milk cheese.
But the ACS hid details about the program on a section of its web site available only to its members. The FDA didnt issue details about the program to the public.
The trumpeting of its most-favored-raw-milk-trade-group status with the FDA stands in contrast to events in 2010, when the ACS was silent throughout a heavy duty FDA assault on two of its members–Morningland Dairy of Missouri and Estrella Family Creamery of Washington–for allegedly producing cheese tainted with pathogens. (Both companies tried hard to work with the FDA and state authorities to fix product and facilities problems, to no avail, as the FDA in particular, ignored their efforts to cooperate; no illnesses were associated with either producer). Indeed, Denise and Joseph Dixon, owners of Morningland Dairy, were at their first American Cheese Society convention in Washington state in late August 2010 when they were called back to Missouri because the FDA and state had initiated their clampdown.
At that same ACS convention, Estrella Family Creamery won three award ribbons for its raw milk cheese.
These were assaults that eventually put these two cheese makers out of business.
How does the ACS respond to concerns about the emphasis it places on forging its close relationship with the FDA? Here are some questions I posed, and the organizations official response:
Is there a reason why you provided information about the FDA’s raw milk cheese pilot program only to ACS members?
One of the benefits of ACS membership is access to information on important industry topics, including regulatory updates, via Member Alerts like the alert disseminated on December 20. As we are a member-driven organization, the content shared via our e-communications and on our website reflects this. We include media outlets that are active ACS members on our Member Alerts, so that information can be shared with the wider cheese community.
Is there a reason you are aware of that the FDA only informed ACS about the plans for the program?
FDA reached out to stakeholder organizations with an invitation to join a conference call in which information about the pilot program was shared, and ACS was included among these organizations. ACS was likely invited to participate in the call because of our continued efforts to engage FDA and represent our members’ interests on regulatory issues. Our Board of Directors and our Regulatory & Academic Committee actively work to ensure that the interests of the artisan and specialty cheese industry are considered by regulatory bodies.
What are you advising your members to do about coping with the FDA program? Cooperate? Ask for test results? Provide ACS with test results?
We encourage our members to keep food safety at the forefront of their work at all times. This includes adhering to FDA guidelines and creating or maintaining a strong HACCP plan. As FDA is unlikely to provide results directly to cheesemakers whose products are selected for testing via this pilot testing program, we are also encouraging our members to be proactive in contacting FDA’s District Compliance Officer with their sample number(s) to get results from their test(s), if their products are selected, so that they are prepared if any of their products do receive positive results.
What is your expectation of what will result from the FDA testing program? A new “study” on raw cheese, as I suggested? New rules on availability of raw milk cheeses? Other?
We are committed to engaging and partnering with our regulatory agencies, and we have built a Regulatory & Academic Committee including a number of industry experts and academics who are able to help guide ACS as to how to interpret and act on regulatory information. We expect that a report on the trending of sample results from the pilot program will be released after the analysis is complete, which will be in January 2015 at the earliest. ACS will keep our members apprised as soon as there is more information to share. In addition, our leadership is planning to meet with FDA officials at the start of the year to continue our dialogue and discuss how we can chart a future for our membership and the broader cheese industry with a goal toward optimizing safety, creativity, and product availability.
Did ACS ever come out with public statements on the cases of Morningland Dairy and/or Estrella Family Creamery (both raw milk cheese producers shut down by FDA/state officials in 2010, and eventually put out of business; both were ACS members)? Statements of support, concern, info? If not, was ACS working for them behind the scenes?
ACS does not typically engage in individual cases involving our members. Instead, we make ourselves available and direct our members to helpful resources if/when they are needed. There are a number of industry experts among our Board of Directors and our volunteer committees. We also encourage our members to be as proactive as possible, particularly when it comes to food safety, and we provide them with access to preparatory tools such as a Crisis Management Toolkit and HACCP templates. Our public Position Statements on Safe Cheesemaking, on the Safety of Raw Milk Cheese, and on the Importance of Artisan, Farmstead, and Specialty Cheese can be found here: http://www.cheesesociety.org/about-us/position-statements
One part of me can empathize with a trade organizations effort to survive and grow in the cutthroat world of trade groups competing for influence, and using that influence to attract new members (by withholding from public circulation certain information for the benefit of members).
But my empathy applies to trade groups working in the normally peaceful environment that applies most of the time to most trade organizations. Unfortunately, many of the members of ACS are part of a war, targeted by their government for the crime of making and selling a product based on raw milk (whether or not that raw milk is heated to 105 degrees or a questionable 140 degrees). Representing your members when they are targeted for elimination by the government is another matter, requiring a different kind of strategy than blindly cozying up, collaborating, with the enemy. Such a strategy doesnt mean you avoid any and all dialog, But it does require that you stand up and be counted when your members are targeted for intentionally extreme regulatory penalties, as was the case with both Morningland Dairy and Estrella Creamery.
To simply answer every concern with a response to effect that we advise our members about food safety isnt an adequate answer. The FDAs latest witch hunt against raw milk cheese, disguised as a pilot program, is intended to discredit raw milk cheese. If it fails to do that, then the FDA will come up with another tactic. And then another, until eventually it obtains the evidence it needs to hamper, and possibly even ban, raw milk cheeses. Its up to the ACS to not just collaborate with the enemy, but to stand up to the enemy. In wartime, thats what allies do for each other.
A Special Nutrient-Dense Food Conference with Dozens of Interviews and Slide Shows
For some years now, I have been a big admirer of Ann Marie Michaels, best known to her fans as Cheeseslave. She has built a huge following based on her guidance for selecting and preparing nutrient-dense food, as well as for encouraging food rights, such as via wider availability of raw milk.
In the process of getting the word out far and wide about good food, she has also created Village Green Network, a network of bloggers, to more widely disseminate information about nutrient-dense food. I have accepted an invitation from VGN to join up, and become part of the network.
One of my first steps as part of VGN is to participate in its highly ambitious online educational program, the “New You Summit”, being held over five days January 20-24. Ill be there with a number of individuals familiar to readers here, like Joel Salatin and Liz Reitzig. Among the topics are homesteading, sugar de-toxing, weight control, activism, and food rights. (Scroll down the page to see the entire five-day program.)
Attendance is free. To gain followup access to recordings of all the events afterwards is a nominal $49, if you sign up by Jan. 19. A part of all fees goes to the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.