“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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