“We’re in a state of extreme nervousness”

In late January CDAF interviewed a number of Scottish artisan cheesemakers – all multi-award-winning businesses, with over 100 years of experience between them

 

Conclusions:

  • Traditional cheesemakers are “living in fear”. They feel bullied by Food Standards Scotland (FSS) to give up making raw milk (unpasteurised) cheese
  • Three well-known cheesemakers have already stopped or cut back raw milk production – knocking out some of Scotland’s most famous cheeses. The gap in the market is being filled with imports
  • Environmental health officers have been instructed to be “more confrontational” with producers and encourage them to move to pasteurised milk
  • Bureaucratic harassment around petty or non-existent issues in processing is damaging business

 

Quotes:

Business

“If business is good it’s only because we’re trying to meet the demand left by Errington being closed. But we can’t do it, we don’t have the milk or the capacity – and that means Scotland losing business to foreign cheesemakers.”

“We’re too scared. We’ve had to stop all raw milk soft cheese making. It’s pasteurised only.”

“Since the Errington closure, we’ve given up making unpasteurised cheese. The risk is too great – not to health – but to our business and our lives. It’s just too nerve-wracking.”

“We’ve been making cheeses for over 30 years, we’ve always followed stated procedures and we’ve never had word from anyone of any illness – yet we’ve been forced to withdraw cheese from sale at a crucial time, despite the tests clearly showing risk within acceptable limits. What was most upsetting was that the head of the FSS stated publicly that our withdrawal was voluntary and they had nothing to do with it. In fact it was clearly instructed by them, overriding the approach agreed between us and the local Environmental Health Department.

“We were told that the authorities would be very happy if we switched to pasteurised. And the Scottish government has said that applications for grants to convert to pasteurised will be fast-tracked by the government.”

“ Many producers, and consumers are concerned the FSS is out to get all small cheese makers: it’s  ‘war on the artisans’.  Confrontation is not the solution: cooperation and support is, and we the producers need to get on with what we do best.

“If what happened to Errington happened to us, we could not cope. It would be over.”

“This mistrust and anger has got to be sorted out. We’re all professionals – we should be working together.”

 

Health, safety and auditing.

“One of the local council’s environmental health officers (EHOs) said they had been told to “audit” unpasteurised milk and to “be more confrontational” in their dealings with us.

“They’re wielding power without knowledge: denying our decades of experience.”

“The Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association best practice rules are what the whole of the rest of the UK uses. They’re more stringent than the European ones. But we’ve been told [by EHOs] they aren’t good enough.”

“The problem is that most environmental health officers don’t know very much. Not their fault, it’s because they cover everything from noise levels to meat hygiene. But one of them told us we should only use sterilised milk! [Milk that has been treated at much higher temperatures than pasteurised is]. They don’t know that you can’t make cheese without bacteria. That’s not good enough.”

“We’ve had much more aggressive attention from EHOs since the summer. There was an inspection of our dairy for a totally hypothetical issue  – a bacterium that has never been a problem in all our years. It resulted in advice that contradicted normal practice and the vet’s advice. It is quite common now to find EHOs sadly ignorant in dairy matters…”

“It’s clear that – despite all the safety auditing done by Red Tractor, Soil Association and other bodies – FSS have told EHOs to audit people who use unpasteurised milk. But EHOs are not specialists in cheese – unlike the auditors from SALSA (a food safety scheme run for retailers) who are.”

 

The future

“We all need to educate each other. The levels of knowledge are not high enough in some areas. Testing is so much more intense, technology is changing and government and cheesemakers need to support each other.”

“So we’re going to trade with America? We’ve already fallen foul of US regulations – they’re very, very different from Europe in terms of how they view food and safety.”

For further information see the Defend Artisan Food Twitter @CDartisanfood

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Bad science and bias is destroying jobs and threatening Scotland’s reputation as a “Good Food Nation”.

This is the message to Food Standards Scotland from the Committee for the Defence of Artisan Food, set up by leading names on the Scottish food scene to highlight threats to small-scale food production posed by the Errington Cheese case.

A public meeting in Edinburgh on 2 February (details below) will debate Food Standards Scotland’s (FSS) closure of this much-respected Lanarkshire cheesemaker. Speakers will explain how FSS is needlessly costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of pounds, putting rural jobs at risk, and threatening the entire Scottish craft cheese industry.

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“If FSS kills off Scottish raw milk cheesemaking, and all the jobs and skills that go with it, then the foreign cheese industry will simply move in and take the business. We will continue to eat raw milk cheese but it will be made in mainland Europe, not by our own Scottish artisans. Traditional products offer a future to many Scottish farmers. The authorities must apply up-to-date scientific understanding, proportionality, and realism to their policing,” says author and CDAF member Joanna Blythman

“In the name of safety, a mix of poor science and prejudice is putting a great Scottish food industry at risk of extinction. Food Standards Scotland’s pursuit of Errington Cheese, without any evidence of any real risk from its much-loved products, is making our claim to be a country that supports great food look ridiculous,” says CDAF member and food journalist Alex Renton.

“Errington Cheese has been out of business seven months, local employment has suffered and a five-figure sum in legal bills already racked up. During this time the FSS have not only, in my opinion, treated the Erringtons very badly, but also created a culture of fear among artisan food producers; a very sad and unnecessary state of affairs. It’s time for FSS to call off the hounds.” says CDAF member and director of the Scottish Food Guide, Wendy Barrie.

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No evidence

FSS – headed by civil servant Geoff Ogle – has banned all Errington Cheeses since July 2016, after an outbreak of E-coli O157 poisoning in Scotland caused a fatality. Yet it has not established any robust scientific or epidemiological link with the cheeses made by this award-winning company.
Independent bacteriological and genome tests have cleared the implicated batches of Errington cheeses of carrying any pathogenic (disease-causing) E-coli O157 strain, and exposed worrying flaws in FSS’s grasp of science.

Earlier this month, the company’s Corra Linn and Lanark Blue cheeses were detained for sampling under the Hygiene Regulations 2006. Testing those cheeses will cost South Lanarkshire taxpayers an estimated £160,000.

Meanwhile, sales of Scottish artisan cheese through London specialist shops are now said to be down at least 60%, as other Scottish cheesemakers withdraw unpasteurized products for fear of being targeted by FSS.

Errington has essentially no right of appeal, a state of affairs that raises major questions about the draconian powers and extremely limited accountability of FSS. The taxpayer-funded agency was set up in 2015 as a non-ministerial office, part of the Scottish Administration, alongside, but separate from, the Scottish Government. The FSS Board – a chair, and seven part-time members appointed by Scottish Ministers – nominally provides it with “strategic direction, oversight and governance”.

Further information:

On Errington Cheese

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The Errington family has been making its award winning cheeses in Scotland since 1984. Its products are widely seen as the jewels in the crown of Scotland’s artisan cheese portfolio, and have greatly enhanced Scotland’s reputation for fine food at home and abroad. http://www.erringtoncheese.co.uk/

On the independent scientific tests
See reporting in The Times (here)
Microbiological tests carried out by the Actalia laboratory in France which represents the gold standard for testing of dairy products in Europe, showed that FSS had based its findings on faulty science and that no toxic strain of E. coli was present in any of the cheeses FSS tested.
Professor Hugh Pennington, Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology at Aberdeen University, and the UK’s leading authority on E.coli O157, has reviewed the tests carried out on behalf of FSS and concluded that it has provided “no microbiological evidence” to link it to the outbreak. He says that none of the tests were positive for the strain of bacteria responsible for the outbreak. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/no-evidence-banned-cheese-was-linked-to-e-coli-outbreak-bvf6wv8sw
An accredited team of health inspectors that has thoroughly examined the Errington premises could find no fault with its hygiene practice.

On the safety of raw milk cheese
Raw milk cheese is a safe food. The latest, most extensive testing was conducted by the US Food and Drug Agency. In 2016 it bought 1,606 raw milk cheeses and tested them for food poisoning pathogens. It found no toxic or pathogenic strains of E.coli in any of these cheeses. The FDA concluded that the overall pathogenicity (presence of food poisoning bugs) in this category of cheese was less than 1%, which compares very favourably to many other categories of food we consume daily. http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/ComplianceEnforcement/Sampling/UCM512217.pdf

On the Committee for the Defence of Artisan Food
CDAF is a new group of high profile food lovers, chefs, and experts set up to

“support and defend small businesses and artisans producing real, healthy, small-scale foods against any arbitrary, unreasonable, disproportionate actions by food and/or public health authorities.”

Committee members:
Wendy Barrie, Director Scottish Food Guide/Scottish Cheese Trail, writer/cook
Fred Berkmiller, Chef proprietor, L’Escargot Bleu & L’Escargot Blanc restaurants
Joanna Blythman, Journalist and author
Pamela Brunton, Chef/co-owner, Inver Restaurant, Argyll
Jeremy Dixon, Fine food restaurant supplier
Rachel Hammond, Butcher/Charcutier
Ben Reade, Chef, Edinburgh Food Studio
Donald Reid, Lecturer in Gastronomy/Food and Drink Editor, The List
Alex Renton, Journalist and author
Caroline Rye, Chair of Slow Food Edinburgh
Christopher Trotter, Fife Food Ambassador and writer

On the CDAF public meeting
Thursday 2nd February 2017, at 7pm, in The Sanctuary, at Augustine United Church, 41-43 George IV Bridge, in Edinburgh. Entry free.

Speakers include:
Humphrey Errington, Founder of Errington Cheese
Wendy Barrie, Director Scottish Food Guide and Scottish Cheese Trail
Pamela Brunton, Chef and co-owner of the award-winning Inver Restaurant
Joanna Blythman, Food journalist and author
Dr Colin Fink, Microbiologist
Dr Ronan Calvez, Microbiologist