Friday, January 14, 2011

The Truth About Estrella Family Creamery

The battle has been on for nearly a year now, and I am yet to form a solid opinion. Here is the background information:

Estrella Family Creamy is (or was?) a beloved, award winning, artisan raw cheese maker based in Western Washington. Fine dining establishments carry and serve their cheese all over Seattle, and even as far as Los Angeles and Manhattan. High end grocery stores and farmer's markets also feature Estrella's amazing cheeses (I know they are amazing, because I have sampled quite a bit in the past). Now, however, instead of selling the cheeses at the farmer's markets, the family is going out to speak on injustice.

Last February, the Washington State Department of Agriculture found Listeria (what is listeria?) in the creamery's production areas and in some of the soft cheeses. These cheeses were recalled....then more again in March when the bacteria was found in a cave used to age the cheeses. Estrella was apparently taking care of the problem when suddenly, it seemed, in October, 2010, the FDA was aggressively demanding a recall of all the cheeses the creamery produced- an estimated $100,000 worth of cheese...more than enough to put the family business under. The fight began when Estrella refused, saying there was no proof that any of the hard cheeses were contaminated.

You all know me. I want to believe in Estrella and the power of the locavore supported small business. I love to hate the FDA and all their special interests an inconsistencies. Most importantly, I love gourmet food, and cheese above all. However, this situation still seems a bit sticky to me.

I certainly do not think that small businesses should get a free pass when it comes to sanitation (or lack thereof). Especially in a business that deals with raw (aka unpasteurized) milk. They should be extra careful, taking every possible precaution in milking and production to avoid contamination. (By the way, I would like to point out the lack of care with conventional dairy in milking and production is masked by the use of antibiotics and pasteurization). Perhaps Estrella Farms should have cleaned their caves a little better....

However, I still cannot believe that completely shutting a company down and forcing a recall on hard cheeses that did not test positive for listeria benefits anyone involved other than big agriculture. (Big agriculture, mind you, was what the FDA was originally set up to protect us from, not force us into like they do today). The FDA and small business do not speak the same language, and situations like these change the problem from a mere translation issue to all out war.

Did Estrella Family Creamery deserve what they got? I am not sure. What I do know is that this should be a lesson to other small farms and businesses. I can only liken it to a sports game where the referees are blatantly and outright in favor of one team over the other: The underdog team has to clearly and unmistakably outplay their opponent in order to become the victors.

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