Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are leading a bicameral, bipartisan coalition in Congress challenging a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standard that could ban many age-old recipes for raw milk cheese and severely harm artisan cheese producers in Vermont.
In a December 3rd letter sent to FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor, the lawmakers express their concerns about FDA's non-toxigenic E. coli standard for raw milk cheeses, and insist that the agency listen to feedback from cheese producers who would be harmed by the more stringent standard. In addition, they question whether a new FDA standard calling for a thousand-fold decrease in the presence of non-toxigenic E. coli in raw milk cheeses would actually benefit public health, whether the standards are scientifically sound, and if they were adopted in an open and transparent way.
The implementation of a more stringent non-toxigenic E. coli standard for raw milk cheeses is inconsistent with internationally-recognized standards. Non-toxigenic E. coli are typically not harmful to humans. The legislators believe that this new standard seriously threatens the artisan cheese industry in Vermont and across the country without evidence of risk to public health.
Welch, Leahy, Sanders and their colleagues wrote: "Cheese production is an important, and growing, component of our nation's value-added agricultural economy. It is an economic driver in rural areas across the country, producing good jobs, internationally-recognized brands, and award-winning cheeses.
"We are concerned that this standard could have a detrimental effect on cheese producers in our districts, and we ask that you carefully consider their feedback and that of the scientific community, and whether there is a commensurate risk and public safety benefit with a more stringent standard."
The letter can be read in its entirety here.
The FDA standard specifically seeks to limit the level of non-toxigenic E. coli found in raw milk cheeses from 10,000 most probable number (MPN)/gram in 2009 to 10 MPN/gram. The standard was contained in the latest edition of the FDA Compliance Program Guidance Manual and Compliance Policy Guide.
"Artisan cheese plays a powerful role in rural economies through job creation and conservation of working landscapes. Cheese has certainly been transformative for our community in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. Every industry needs good regulation in order to thrive. As a cheesemaking community we are not asking for "less' regulation, we are asking for "good' regulation that is developed transparently and based on solid science. Getting the details right is of critical importance. The future of artisan cheesemaking in America depends on it," said Mateo Kehler, Co-Founder, Jasper Hill Farm.
"I am delighted that the Vermont congressional delegation and their colleagues in the House and Senate are challenging FDA's establishment of non-toxigenic E. coli standards for cheese. The American artisan cheese industry is witnessing extraordinary growth in the number of producers and products with corresponding improvements in quality and safety. Our American artisan cheeses rival the very best cheeses produced in Europe, and both domestic and imported cheeses are in high consumer demand and are creating economic opportunities for cheese makers and retailers both large and small. At a time when the Food Safety Modernization Act is requiring us to harmonize our microbiological standards with those of our international trading partners, this issue requires rigorous scientific analysis and international dialogue. These standards are negatively impacting both domestic and imported artisan cheeses. As someone who has conducted extensive research to improve the safety of artisan cheeses, I can conclusively state that there is no scientific basis for these standards," said Dr. Catherine W. Donnelly, Professor of Nutrition and Food Science, The University of Vermont.