NPR profiled the burgeoning California artisanal cheese industry today, noting specifically the crackdown on producers that happened in 2010. Raw milk and raw milk-based products caused 12 outbreaks and 146 confirmed E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella, and listeria illnesses in 2010, and were responsible for another 9 recalls. Three of these outbreaks were linked to raw milk-based cheese, causing 46 confirmed illnesses, including 38 E. coli illnesses by Bravo Farms cheese, and 8 by Sally Jackson cheese. These outbreaks have prompted speculation–actually, more than mere speculation–that the FDA’s 60 day aging rule for raw milk-based cheeses doesn’t work. So what next from regulators?
It seems that most food safety experts are in agreement that the rule doesn’t adequately ensure the products’ safety, so when can we expect the FDA to act to revise the rule? Artisanal cheese certainly isn’t going anywhere, and can only be expected to reach an even wider consumer base in coming years, so it is not a problem that is going to way by itself.
Food safety, from a regulatory standpoint, has historically moved at an agonizingly slow pace. It took the biggest of the big outbreaks (Jack in the Box in 1993) for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to deem E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant in beef; and Marler Clark’s petition for FSIS to declare other non-O157 strains of dangerous E. coli has been mired in the regulatory process for a year and a half now, with only the announcement that FSIS is going to do more testing on beef to determine whether a policy change is necessary. So what of the 60-day rule? in the meantime, consumers will just have to rely on producers, some of whom have a less than stellar track record, for the safety of the product.