Estrella Creamery farmstandEstrella Creamery’s market table in happier times. Photo: LibrarymanTo many observers, including me, the Food and Drug Administration’s recent pathogen-hunting campaign amongst artisanal and small cheese makers is evidence that it will not wield the new powers granted it to by the Food Safety Modernization Act neutrally, to inspect and regulate the largest sources of risk in the food system. (See Grist’s Food Fight debate, in which I was a participant, for more.) It’s gone looking for the most easily findable, albeit least commonly infectious pathogen around — listeria monocytogenes.

Its agenda seems to be building a compelling case for lengthening or eliminating the 60-day aging requirement for raw-milk cheeses. For decades, American dairy regulations have allowed the sale of cheese made from unpasteurized milk as long as it’s aged at least 60 days, during which pathogens should die off in the fermentation process. Europe does not have this same aging requirement, and allows the sale of soft raw-milk cheeses.

The FDA has come up with two “bingos” in its search — findings of listeria monocytogenes at two small cheese makers, in Missouri (Morningland Dairy) and Washington (Estrella Family Creamery). Plus, a third cheese maker (Bravo Farms), in California, has been connected with more than 30 illnesses. A recent article on the Estrella case said that the FDA in its hunt found 24 cheesemakers with listeria monocytogenes.

Now, the American Cheese Society, which includes nearly 300 artisanal cheese makers — more than half of which produce raw-milk cheeses — has released data about how the FDA inspections have affected its members. Its findings suggest that despite the FDA’s intense dragnet, with the agency searching every crease and crevice of cheese producers seeking listeria, it appears to be coming up empty by and large.

Here are some key findings of a just-completed ACS member survey:

  • Of 130 ACS members who responded to the survey, three-fourths were inspected this year, versus between 3 and 8 percent in previous years.

  • The most common pathogen tested for, by a very wide margin over the runner-up (59 to 34 percent), was listeria.
  • The inspectors generally searched high and low for evidence of listeria. According to the ACS, “Beyond the obvious inspection spaces such as make rooms and aging rooms, respondents reported that inspectors are examining intake and receiving areas, storage areas, brine rooms, milking rooms, barns, kitchens, bathrooms, packaging areas, and retail spaces.”
  • The only ACS members to have had positive tests this year are two of the three previously mentioned: Estrella and Bravo Cheese.

The possibility that the FDA is not finding what it is searching for is ironic on several levels. Listeria is nearly ubiquitous in our environment, and thus an easy target if you’re hoping to find pathogens. Yet according to the FDA’s own data, it appears to be much less threatening than the other three pathogens typically associated with food-borne illness — campylobacter, salmonella, and the E. coli strain 0157:H7. For example, a new joint FDA-Centers for Disease Control report on food safety (published in connection with the federal “Healthy People 2020″ initiative) reports that campylobacter was responsible for 12.7 cases on average of laboratory-confirmed infections per 100,000 population annually between 2006-08. For salmonella, the number was 15.2 per 100,000 people.

But for listeria monocytogenes, it was 0.3 cases per 100,000, or a single case for every 300,000-plus people per year. That’s infinitesimal, and explains why the cheese-loving European Union has a more flexible approach to listeria than the FDA’s zero-tolerance policy.

The ACS credits the FDA’s inability to find pathogens with the fact that more than half of its members have HACCP plans (hazard analysis and critical control points) designed to reduce safety problems.

What will the FDA do about the aging rule? “We’re hopeful the 60-day rule might continue to be the law of the land,” says Christine Hyatt, ACS president.

The question is very much up in the air.