Strict new guidelines governing cheese production using unpasteurised milk have been proposed in Scotland.
Citing over-regulation of raw milk cheese as one of the reasons for their decision, Barwheys Dairy in Ayrshire have announced they are to close.
The seven, remaining, Scottish, raw milk cheese producers argue that the new guidelines are disproportionately onerous, impossible to meet and will mean the end of farmhouse cheese production in this country.
Why does this matter? On a purely selfish level, Scotland's raw milk cheesemakers produce high quality, award-winning cheeses which are absolutely delicious. Cheese made from raw milk has more character and more flavour than those made from pasteurised milk. Raw milk cheeses also contain good bacteria that are beneficial to your gut biome.
Losing them would be a loss to Scotland's larder, your taste buds and your gut health.
More importantly, losing an important part of our dairy sector would be a blow to Scotland's reputation as a good food nation. Countries like France and Spain are proud of their raw milk cheesemakers and recognise their contribution to their national culinary reputation. Why can't we do the same?
Last but by no means least, people's jobs and livelihoods are at stake.
Understandably, the remaining cheesemakers are fighting back.
On Wednesday night, the 5pm Food blog attended an event at Fred Berkmiller's L'escargot blanc restaurant in Edinburgh.
Among the guests were Humphrey Errington of Errington Cheese and Wilma Finlay of The Ethical Dairy - two of Scotland's family-run, raw milk cheesemakers. Both are members of the Specialist Cheesemakers Association (SCA).
If you follow Scottish food news then the name Errington will be familiar. In 1994 and in 2016, there were outbreaks of foodborne illness in Scotland. In relation to these incidents, Errington Cheese Limited were accused of breaking food hygiene standards. Each time, at great personal expense and stress, the Errington family disputed the allegations and the courts found for the Erringtons.
The last case was fought against South Lanarkshire Council which used advice and guidance from Food Standards Scotland (FSS). As The Times reported last July, 'In a 254-page judgment Sheriff Robert Weir, QC, said that claims by South Lanarkshire Council, backed by Food Standards Scotland, that Errington Cheese had failed to comply with legal standards of food hygiene were “not well-founded”.' You can read the Sheriff Court Judgement here.
Public health a top priority
After the verdict, FSS, the SCA and the Scottish Food Enforcement Liaison Committee (SFELC) had a meeting to discuss some of the concerns raised by cheesemakers regarding guidance on raw milk cheese production for Environmental Health Officers in Scotland. The SCA and its members, industry representatives and local authorities were invited to participate in a consultation at the early stages of the guidance’s development.
So far, so positive. The cheesemakers welcomed consultation and everyone has public health as a top priority.
In December 2018, new guidance was issued by SFELC for Environmental Health Officers. They involve higher, more stringent requirements than are in force anywhere else in Europe. In fact, Scotland's raw milk cheesemakers consider the new guidance so strict that it will force them out of business.
You can delve deep into why Scotland's raw milk cheesemakers think the new regulations are over the top here. In a nutshell, it all hinges on risk assessment and management. The cheesemakers think that FSS/SFELC have got both wrong.
Humphrey Errington put it succinctly last night when he said that 'Food Stands Scotland's new guidelines set the bar so high that it would be impossible to make raw milk cheese'.
While acknowledging FSS's role in protecting public health, he pointed out that although the new regulations would make business impossible for Scotland's raw milk cheesemakers, Scottish consumers would still be able to buy raw milk cheese made in, say, England, France or Italy.
Essentially, Scotland's raw milk, artisan cheese sector would be shut down by penal regulation. This would be done in order to safeguard public health against what the FSS see as the risks posed by cheese made with unpasteurised milk. However, the public could still purchase and consume raw milk cheese made elsewhere.
Over the last few weeks, five of Scotland's raw milk cheesemakers have raised money via a crowdjustice campaign. The aim was to launch a judicial review petition asking the Court of Session to consider whether the new guidelines are lawful.
Last week, the judicial review was lodged. The ball is now in the court of Food Standards Scotland.
Hopefully, we will soon learn that our raw milk cheesemakers have a long and happy future.
If things go the other way, there will be a long and bloody fight ahead.
If you want to contribute to the cheesemakers' legal fighting fund then this is where you do it.
The 5pm Food blog will update the story as it unfolds.
We'll leave you with a message from the cheesemakers:
'Thank you all for your ongoing support and encouragement, I think it is fair to say that we are all finding this process extremely stressful and are all very grateful to know the public are behind us.
We are all 100% committed to producing our cheese to the highest possible safety standards. In order to assist us in doing that we need a regulatory system that achieves meaningful benefits in terms of cheese safety; to do that meaningful engagement with our industry and a clear indication that they are willing to follow industry advice and guidance aligned with the rest of the UK should not be too much to ask.'
**Since posting this blog, on 28/03/19, the FSS press office have contacted the blog. We have amended the blog to clarify the following points:
The guidance referred to was produced by SFELC for Environmental Health Officers and not by FSS, as we stated earlier. SFFELC supports the work of FSS by providing information and expert advice in relation to food and feed law enforcement. SFELC contributes to the development and implementation of FSS strategies and policies for fulfilling its core functions in respect of food and feed safety and consumer protection.
The legal case referred to in the original blog was not between Errington Cheese Ltd and FSS, but between Errington Cheese Ltd and South Lanarkshire Council.
The court action we referred to originally was not about the 2016 outbreak of E.coli O157. The evidence-based decisions taken by the multi-agency Incident Management Team in relation to the 2016 E. coli outbreak can be found in the IMT report**. The conclusions of this report still stand.