FDA’s Zero-Tolerance Food Safety Policy Stymies Cheese-Making Creativity

Max McCalman is a world-renowned expert on cheese and a good friend of both DELI BUSINESS and its sister publication, CHEESE CONNOISSEUR. In this issue, he writes a thoughtful piece regarding the current state of the food safety rules regarding the cheese industry. He substantively questions whether the FDA understands cheese and whether anticipated food safety protocols might help or hurt the situation.

Unfortunately, the issue goes beyond mere technical competence at the FDA. The real problem is that, in fact, the FDA has a defacto zero-tolerance policy on food safety. This is a shame because it discourages people in the industry from actually talking about their problems in producing, storing, shipping and selling food and so slows the communal search for solutions.

Other approaches to federal guidelines are known to be much more productive. For example, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) and its successor, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), have had a series of five-year plans, with each plan focused on improving airline safety. As a result of the airline industry, plane makers, engine makers, air traffic controllers, etc., have all worked collaboratively to improve the system. Today, commercial airline travel is enormously safe. If you look at the statistics, the very few fatalities attributed to commercial aviation are typically oddball things, such as a worker on the tarmac driving a cart and getting into an accident.

The cheese industry is going to have quite a battle. I know this because our company, which also publishes PRODUCE BUSINESS and PerishablePundit.com, has been at the epicenter of produce industry discussions regarding food safety. In the produce industry, farmers have pleaded with the FDA to define clear standards that would eliminate liability if farmers comply. Yet the FDA will never issue a food safety rule that says “a fence around the farm must be five feet tall” because if it turns out that an animal jumps six feet, enters the field and causes a food safety problem, the FDA doesn’t want to be at fault. So the FDA tends to issue vague direction, such as admonishing farmers to be mindful of animal intrusion.

When the FDA is specific, it typically locks in existing technology and thus discourages a search for alternatives.

The truth is the American food supply is enormously safe; even the “high risk” items are very safe. Food safety incidents today are “black swan” events and so not easily amenable to any food safety fix. Go into a spinach field, do a random selection of 100 samples, test the samples, and they all could come out clean. If you repeat two minutes later you may get a positive; two minutes later, they are all negative again. What caused it? Who knows? Maybe a bird dropping? Nobody knows and nobody, including the FDA, has a viable plan to ensure there is never a food safety problem.

Of course, this is a bizarre standard. We don’t ban cars because we know there will be accidents; we don’t even demand that cars be as safe as possible because such heavy things are called tanks and wouldn’t be economically feasible. We recognize that although safety is a value, it is not the only value. This really comes down to whether, as a society, we are going to look to government to be a nanny that stops us from doing anything that might cause us harm or whether we are going to respect the autonomy of the individual and allow people to make trade-offs that make their lives their own.

The food industry is conflicted on this. Retailers like the idea that consumers have faith the government will protect the food supply and the retailers don’t have to take on that burden. Manufacturers like that consumers feel any product sold is safe, by definition.

Yet very possibly this is part of the food safety problem. If consumers feel everything is safe, it discourages investment in food safety by all sectors of the chain. Producers don’t feel it will give them a competitive edge, retailers don’t think it will give them a competitive edge, and if everything is safe it would be a big waste of time for consumers to invest in either vetting retailers who vet food well or vetting manufacturers.

In fact, if the FDA acknowledged its own limitations and urged consumers to take responsibility for what they ate, it would lead to more investment of both time and money in food safety and thus safer food.

For this author, having just returned from New Zealand, I was excited to try a raw-milk Aroha Organic Goat cheese, one of the very few raw milk cheeses the Kiwis have started producing since a law in 2011 relaxed restrictions. There was a risk. But it was slight, and I don’t have a compromised immune system, so if I did get sick, there is a good chance I would recover, and there are beneficial bacteria that might even boost my health.

Besides, in eating the cheese I experienced, just for a moment, the subtle complexity of the terroir in which the goats that made the milk were fed. I tasted something I had never tasted before. To me, that made my life richer. On what basis is my government to deny me that opportunity?

There is a big movement now for consumers to “know their farmer,” and it just as well could be applied to mean “know your cheesemaker.”