A shout out to all my friends and colleagues attending the American Cheese Society conference. Thirty-two years ago the challenge was make better cheese. Twenty-odd years ago, when I served as a judge, there were 200 something cheeses, early efforts, only a handful of them truly delicious. Today there are thousands, some world-class, most quite good. Working together, we have made a difference.
Thirty-two years of educational presentations and the best darn cheese competition in the world, (because the cheeses are judged in teams of one technical judge and one aesthetic judge). American Farmhouse and Artisan cheese has undergone some affinage itself.
Challenges remain, though they have changed. Once rabble-rousing revolutionaries, cheese pioneers are confronting the problems of human aging, and an ever-changing, complex and complicated landscape of public health and food safety regulation.
Uniquely qualified to face the challenges of survival in a world that favors large-scale production, cheese makers are stubborn, gritty, don’t like to listen to anybody except each other, and prefer to learn the hard way. This leads to the kind of dog-headed independence that made the American artisan cheese renaissance possible.
It can be a tough row to hoe when facing the challenges of diminishing energy, while needing to protect assets for their families after many years of a difficult daily fight to survive. It’s one thing to learn from scratch with your friends when you’re young and full of energy, quite another when the enemy you’re facing is the inevitable march of time.
You need knowledge you can’t find on Google or in an online chat. And, there is no answer to the problem of aging; only accommodation and planning.
• How do you successfully maintain your independent spirit when your day is consumed with the tedious problems of an established business?
• How do you confront aging and plan for succession?
The recent confusion over regulatory requirements presented a particularly thorny problem. At the root lies the burden of requiring small producers to conform to control systems designed for larger ones, despite being very different systems. The needs and the risks are not the same.
It came in a proposal to lower the standard for non-pathogenic coliform bacteria counts to match the very strict conditions required by Canada, in-service of a multilateral trade agreement. It generated a state of panic. Some producers abandoned the production of some of America’s best cheeses, waiting
A bit of time in the aging room and a more mature artisan industry forsook the conspiracy theories of the past and met the problem head-on. In dialogue with the FDA, with the help of some senators and House members, they were able to win a review of this standard. Some wags say the real reason is that the United States has signed international accords requiring that any food safety standard is backed up by solid science. There is no clear science demonstrating a correlation or causal link for non-disease causing bacteria counts and sanitary conditions on the farm.
So why did they decide to do it back in the 20th century? It seemed like a good idea at the time. With limited resources, inspectors could not keep up with every facility. However, Nature is not logical, and today we have the testing capability to know if the six or seven bacteria that cause illness in milk are in the milk. Why are we still depending on an outdated and imperfect solution? Because the cost of testing is high.
If everyone was doing it, the cost of the tests would come down. But really, this is not a scientific solution either. Testing after the fact is too late. The only real solution to better milk is better process. Results have causes. To change them you have to look for the cause.
We know, for instance, that nature works in systems. Reducing the variables of nature in the laboratory can only give us results that reflect the fact that the test took place in a laboratory. Laboratory tests are set up to create a normal distribution, a statistical term meaning the only things impacting the results are the things being tested themselves.
But normal distributions do not exist in nature! Nature, by nature, is complex and ever changing, and variables are far less important than how they relate to each other, how they work together.
Microbiologists worldwide are heralding a new age of understanding in the interactions between different microbiomes. Pending breakthroughs in the treatment of long-term threats to our well-being are at hand, while we, in dairy, are misusing 19th-century science and inadvertently covering over serious potential problems as bacteria, both good and bad, are constantly adapting, mutating to try and gain an upper hand. We can understand and work in harmony with them, but never fully control them.
How do you avoid being consumed by fear or anger when faced with being crushed under the burden of a regulatory system designed for large capital intensive industrial food production? Small and big are different systems, with very different risks, and very different needs.
• Who is going to pay for the research needed to prove what is and isn’t necessary for a small dairy as opposed to a large?
• What would be the best possible system to ensure the wholesomeness and safety of artisan cheeses from small producers?
Improving systems, the best work comes when all parties involved in a problem are sitting at the table trying to solve that problem. When regulators, academics, technicians, producers, distributors, retailers, and consumers finally sit down together to create a food safety system that works for everyone, we will design something wonderful.
Break down the barriers between
apparently conflicting groups, and people will come to realize that defending your turf, you have already lost. The best way to make things better, in a complex world, is to improve the overall system. Make things better for everyone. You gain more than any other way.
Coliform counts are wrongly used. By focusing on a single result, we make things worse. How can I say that? Anyone who has been charged with making a difference in the real world of the marketplace knows that the use of marker bacteria, even pasteurization itself, covers over dangerously unsanitary conditions.
I have personally witnessed horrific conditions and fixed them by looking at the changes over time in bacterial counts that were well below the arbitrary limit of what is safe and what isn’t. I have personally found products with high coliform counts that when tested for pathogenic bacteria were perfectly safe, and as many honest professors will agree, surprisingly delicious.
I applaud the FDA when they say they want to work together with small producers but challenge them to go further, to bring everyone to the table, and design a better overall process.
“Microbiomes sustain life on our planet, and they are laboratories of novelty, green chemistry, and life-changing pharmaceuticals,” said Jeff F. Miller, director of the California NanoSystems Institute in their Microbial Manifesto.
“Understanding how they work might hold the key to advances as diverse as fighting antibiotic resistance and autoimmune diseases, reclaiming ravaged farmland, reducing fertilizer and pesticide use, and converting sunlight into useful chemicals.”
And, if I may, a better, safer, more delicious and more sustainable food system. Curd on comrades! DS
Dan Strongin is a former president of the American Cheese Society, chef and business coach for small to medium value added businesses, and the owner of the sites learn.managenaturally.com, and the Facebook group Enjoy Cheese. His online course: “Cheese: How to Buy, Store, Taste, Pair, Talk About and Serve”, is available at enjoycheese.net. Dan can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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