A Choice To Do Something Dangerous?

Food safety is important for all food products. Yet as the specialty food industry moves increasingly into the perishable arena, new food safety challenges are certain to emerge.

Some of this is simply operational. Many specialty food retailers don’t realize how easy they have had it. Too many years of artfully arranging beautiful glass jars may have inured them to the challenges of dealing with perishable items.

A few of the challenges are less clearly defined: employee training, customer education, the difficulty of maintaining cold chains from supplier to store and onto the shelf. The intersection between food safety, shrink and spoilage becomes an overwhelming concern. One can go on and on.

These, however, are issues for each individual retailer and his suppliers to wrestle with.

For the industry, the move to perishables poses a substantially bigger question: namely, whether we are prepared to accept the traditionally conservative stance of the United States government on food safety.

The issue is brought to mind by recent news reports on a cheese crisis in France. Two people died and a third person fell into a coma when they ate a cheese that had been misidentified as Epoisses, the cheese from Burgundy, made from unpasteurized milk and famous for its pungent aroma. The French government moved to recall several types of soft cheese that had been found to have listeria present. These recalls have devastated cheese sales in France.

In time it was determined that the whole thing was a fraud. The cheese was made from pasteurized milk under the supervision of a man who had been convicted of health violations and fraudulently using the Epoisses name. But the issue has not died down. Some Frenchmen perceive a secret plot or conspiracy in which the U.S. – expected to soon take a position in World Trade Organization talks opposing the sale in international trade of cheeses made with unpasteurized milk – had somehow done nefarious things to get its point across. This is unlikely, but the substance of the argument is going to be the subject of debate for a long time.

On the one side, we have those claiming that pasteurization is safer; on the other are those who say that pasteurization, by killing all present bacteria, leaves the field open for new contamination. And it is true that, overall, the food safety systems in the U.S. and in France do not indicate a significantly superior food safety record for one or the other with both countries having similar incidences of listeriosis.

Still, the question remains – does the overwhelming weight of the evidence indicate that cheeses made from pasteurized milk are safer? Yes it does. But, perhaps the more important question is whether this is the issue that should matter? I would say no. The specialty food industry has special responsibilities here. These responsibilities go beyond protecting its manufacturers or even beyond food safety. The specialty food industry has the obligation to help Americans develop the most sophisticated palates.

Fortunately, doing this is much in line with traditional American values such as personal autonomy and freedom of choice.

Domestically this is a hotly contested issue. The National Cheese Institute, the large lobbying group for mass-market cheese manufacturers, urges that pasteurization or an equivalent process be required for all internationally traded cheese. Not surprisingly this is the position the U.S. trade representative is expected to adopt.

The American Cheese Society, on the other hand, a group far more influenced by small producers and specialty retailers, has drawn up a political platform that defends the rights of people and countries to enjoy cheeses made from either pasteurized or raw milk.

The suspicions of some Frenchmen over the cheese incident reflect mostly cultural differences, with the French favoring natural foods – raw milk cheese, hormone-free beef, etc. – and many Americans more accepting of an increased role for technology in our lives.

The issue for the specialty food trade is not cultural but culinary. These products are felt by many to have superior taste and flavor characteristics. Many in the specialty cheese industry in the U.S. say that the texture, the depth and complexity of flavor – even the scent of raw milk cheeses – make them simply irreplaceable.

The specialty food industry must stand on the side of allowing Americans the freedom to consume these products – provided ample warning is given.

But for many this is heresy. Food safety has to come to be defined as an absolute. One can walk into any store, buy anything and be absolutely assured it is perfectly safe. Such an expectation is not only unrealistic but is deadening to the sense of individual responsibility that America represents. It is also deadening to the taste buds as it denies consumers the opportunity to consume some of the great delicacies of the world – including a cheese such as Epoisses.