The Estrella Family Creamery, producer of artisanal cheeses, has refused to conduct a broad recall of its cheeses after the FDA has found listeria contamination on multiple occasions. This "stand against big government" has resulted in a feud between foodies and regulators.
It is true that there may be two sides to every story, but it is also true that in most cases, only one of them is right. The FDA's roots go back to 1848 and the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906. It has even made the world safe by overseeing penicillin, insulin and checking out millions of cranberries in 1959, so that America didn't get poisoned on Thanksgiving.
The agency's position in the great cheese war is that it is only trying to protect the public from the potentially fatal complications that can arise from listeria poisoning. Foodies say that only big corporations should have to adhere to such strict regulations and that the FDA is simply lining its pockets by coming down on small farmers and food producers.
Listeria usually causes no damage to healthy people, but if you have a weak immune system (like that belonging to people with cancer or HIV, or children or senior citizens) it can kill you. It can also be fatal to pregnant women and their unborn children. The fact that even a portion of the population ingesting these cheeses can have significant health problems, including death, should be enough for any food producer to institute a recall of its contaminated product.
Kelli Estrella, an award-winning cheesemaker, disagrees. Estrella believes the FDA is cracking down on her business as part of a campaign against raw milk, which is used to make artisanal cheeses. She says that her refusal to institute a recall is her way of fighting for her customers' rights. "I don't think this issue is about bacteria and it's not about cheese," she said. "I think that we're losing our freedom."
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Estrella is protecting her bottom line. The recall would have destroyed, by her own estimation, about $100,000 worth of her cheese. To a small food producer, a hundred grand is a significant amount of money, even if your products are served on the tables of some of Manhattan and L.A.'s most chichi restaurants.
It is understandable that foodies are upset. The woman makes really good cheese. "She's an incredible craftsperson and one of the best cheesemakers in the country," Tia Keenan, a restaurant consultant who specializes in cheese, told the New York Times. "The laws regarding food safety are really meant to regulate large-scale, corporate, industrial food production, and small food producers really suffer under those guidelines."
But shouldn't all food producers, big or small, be regulated to ensure the safety of their products?