We hear a lot of news about the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) when they make decisions about cheese. It’s scary to hear that a new regulation has been passed and will be enforced.
However, one of the benefits of being an amateur cheese maker is that we don’t have to worry about the FDA coming to our homes and confiscating our cheese. We can do whatever we want in our own homes and nobody can stop us.
So, why should we care if artisan cheese makers have issues with the FDA? It’s not our problem.
But, maybe it is. In an ideal world, we would like to be able to sell our cheeses locally – at our own farms, farmer’s markets and CSAs. (At least his seems to be the consensus among responders to our first article about selling our own cheese.) We want to be able to defray some of the costs of feed for our animals, etc.)
This is not to say that we don’t respect the interests of cheese makers who have met all the requirements to sell their cheeses in the marketplace. They have earned their right to create the biggest market they can and we support them 100%. If they are licensed, they can sell anywhere.
The question is- How are we ever going to secure the right to sell our cheeses locally if we don’t involve ourselves in the existing rules? We have to know the big picture.
What is the FDA?
In 1906, the public became outraged when they read Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle” about the meat packing business. That year, Congress passed the Federal Food and Drugs Act which gave the Bureau of Chemistry the power to regulate. The bureau’s name was changed to the Food, Drug, and Insecticide Administration and then in 1930, the name was shortened to the FDA.
The FDA was funded (underfunded) entirely by the government (the people) until the last year of the Bush administration. In 1992, Congress passed the Prescription Drug User Fee Act which, in retrospect, may not have been a good idea.
The pharmaceutical companies wanted to expedite the review of their drugs and the agency was understaffed. So, the idea was for the drug companies to pay a user fee for their reviews. The result now is that the safety side of the FDA remains woefully underfunded and almost half of the overall budget comes from user fees.* In other words, a large percent of the people who work for the FDA basically get their salaries from the drug companies. There is some question as to whether this is a “fox guarding the hen house” situation.
It gets even worse.
There are 6 “product centers” within the FDA and one of them – The Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition – CFSAN covers all food products and cosmetics. There are only 800 employees in this division to regulate over 377,000 registered food facilities and several thousand cosmetic firms. This is a crazy situation and many have suggested that we really do not have a safety system in this country.**
What can the FDA do?
The FDA is authorized to inspect any place where food is manufactured. If the owner of an establishment refuses to permit FDA inspectors to enter, the FDA may obtain a search warrant to enter. If the owner allows the FDA to enter and the FDA finds evidence of violation, they do not need a search warrant to seize the materials in question.
This is a lot of power for an understaffed and underfunded agency to have.
What is the current situation?
There are at least 2 trains of thought about the present situation with the FDA. One is that the agency is headed toward banning raw milk cheese entirely.*** There have been efforts in that direction in the last few years.
The other thought is that the FDA might be listening to the cheese makers more than they ever have before, as evidenced by the fact that they have backed down on their last two decisions (to ban wooden shelves for aging and to limit the amount of non-toxic bacteria allowed in cheese).
What does this mean for home cheese makers?
Needless to say, if the FDA bans the production of raw milk cheese entirely, we will not be able to sell it anywhere. But, if the FDA becomes more responsive to the needs of artisan cheese makers, we might make progress in that direction.
Our suggestion is that we support artisan cheese makers whenever we can- by buying raw milk cheeses, becoming members of cheese clubs and guilds in our states and by taking action whenever we can to let our legislators know how we feel. We would love to hear your ideas about this important issue.
*According to Wikipedia: The FDA’s federal budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2012 totaled $4.36 billion, while the proposed 2014 budget is $4.7 billion. About $2 billion of this budget is generated by user fees. Pharmaceutical firms pay the majority of these fees, which are used to expedite drug reviews.[18