Dairy Marketing Practice | Contributing Columnist


‘Ending the War on Artisan Cheese’
A Book Review

Dan Strongin ASQ CMQ/OE Uncorporate Consultant

December 20, 2019


Scientists who write well for the rest of us are few and far between. In my last column, I mentioned that I would be reviewing a newly published book that is well written and guaranteed to provoke debate.

Ending the War on Artisan Cheese: The Inside Story of Government Overreach and the Struggle to Save Traditional Raw Milk Cheesemakers” is written by Catherine W. Donnelly, Ph.D., and published by Chelsea Green Publishing,

  About the Author
Dr. Donnelly is a professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont, editor of the Oxford Companion to Cheese, winner of a James Beard Award, former co-director of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese. Her area of expertise is food safety; the primary focus of her research is listeria, which she began investigating more than three decades ago. Internationally renowned, she is one of a handful of scientists who have profoundly deepened our understanding of microbes and cheese.

And She is a Good Writer
Part One is “Facts and Myths,” with a thorough introduction to the raw milk cheese debate from someone with insider knowledge. She talks about the history, the legacy, whether it is hazardous, and why it is not really “Raw.”

In Part Two, she shares the nuts and bolts of how we got where we are, covering regulations in the US and Europe and the evolution in the definition of pasteurization. She explains with care the problems many in the scientific community have with current and past FDA policy on artisan cheese, citing references and examples. She looks in detail at the controversial decisions over wooden boards, and listeria in artisan cheese, explaining clearly the science, referring to the source material. She delves into the problems with recent EU decisions over geographical indications. She delineates the pandora’s box they have opened, finishing up with a comprehensive timeline of events and some hard questions.

In part three, she writes about what she thinks can be done. How we need a new regulatory model and what that could be. She shares international perspectives and outlines how we can advocate for a more just and reasonable regulatory model, including a well-reasoned argument for putting artisan cheese under the purview of the Department of Agriculture, rather than the FDA.

And She is a Top-Notch Authoritative Researcher
For me, the first two sections helped in three ways:
1. They clarified and filled in the gaps on how we got to where we are. As you know, if you have been reading my columns, it is a subject that I have written about more than once. With the facts laid out by someone directly involved in the battles, and respected by both sides, was found illuminating.
2. Explaining the gap between current scientific understanding and the FDA’s misinterpretations clarifies the rift between the scientific community and the FDA.
3. It is difficult for a layperson to know which academic sources are reliable. Having someone point out the authoritative research is invaluable for those of us who battle for a diverse agricultural base, with room for big and small.

The third section took us into the terra incognita of the future, offering a thoughtworthy outline for a solution to the problem that has been dogging family agriculture since before I was born: the unrelenting loss of family farms and traditional food producers.

Offers Thoughtful Solutions
Dr. Donnelly argues that the USDA would be better suited to having responsibility for the oversite of artisan cheese production, as many of those who work there have experience in agriculture. They already have an effective, less burdensome model in place. The FDA leans more towards pharmaceuticals and treats artisan cheese, and cheese in general, accordingly.

My Thoughts
The FDA defines public policy, for the most part, looking at one part of the chain of knowledge, possibility. Using laboratory analysis, they decide if a thing is possible. If possible, they regulate against it. Potential is only one part of the equation of risk analysis. Probability and actuality come into play.

I have argued in previous articles that in a laboratory, you try to remove all influences you can to study which of two outcomes is possible. It is very black and white: one thing right and one thing wrong. There is no wiggle room. To manage risks pragmatically, you need to know more than if something is possible. You also need to find out if it is probable, which means how likely it is to happen. But possible and probable will not tell you if it is happening.

The world is not a neatly controlled environment like a laboratory. A variety of influences affect it. You need empirical data and direct observation to focus limited resources on managing the risks that are happening. Concentrate on all the things that could, and you can miss the ones that are. Nothing less than the WHO called for a shift to characterizing risks quantitatively over a decade ago, including probability and actuality in the calculation, when possible.

Dr. Donnelly lays out in no uncertain terms how this has hurt farmers and consumers and underlines the importance of the public in advocating for itself.
My Recommendation

I cannot recommend this book more highly. It goes to the point, never lets it go, does not waste your time, and leaves you with much to think about afterward. Releasing to the public on the 14th of November, you can find it at the following online sellers, and if you ask for it, your local bookstore: Chelsea Green Publishing, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

Dan Strongin is a former president of the American Cheese Society, chef and business coach for small to medium value added businesses. Dan can be reached via email at dan@danstrongin.com




The views expressed above do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Reporter.



Dan Strongin

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 dan@danstrongin.com.

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