Number six in our top stories of 2010 countdown is the seizure of raw-milk cheese that attracted national interest:
As 2010 dawned, Estrella Family Creamery in southwest Washington state was basking in its reputation as a world-class raw-milk cheesemaker with international and national awards to its name. As the year ended, the creamery was embroiled in a legal battle with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after federal agents seized all of its cheeses on Oct. 21.
According to the FDA, the seizure was prompted by repeated testing by the Washington State Department of Agriculture and the FDA during the year that showed the persistent presence of Listeria monocytogenes, a dangerous foodborne pathogen, in the creamery’s cheese products and facilities.
Listeria can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems. Listeria infections can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths.
Estrella’s handcrafted cheeses, which are aged for 60 days or more, are made with milk that hasn’t been pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria that might be in the milk.
The “federal raid” propelled the creamery into the national spotlight as a “poster child” for small-scale farms in the ongoing and often highly emotional battle over whether food produced on small farms is safer than food produced by agribusiness.
On one side are the local-food advocates who point to profit-driven corporate agriculture as the primary source for most of the nation’s foodborne illness outbreaks. On the other side, are federal agencies, food-safety scientists, and a coalition of farms, processors, and wholesalers — many, but not all, of them large-scale entities — that warn that potentially deadly pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella don’t discriminate between small and large farms.
To date, no illnesses have been linked to any of the Estrella creamery’s cheeses, which are sold to high-end restaurants, area farmers markets and retail shops throughout the region and in several states.
The meltdown for the family farm and its creamery began in February and March when testing revealed the presence of Listeria monocytogenes in some of its cheeses, in the salt brine used in processing the cheese, and in production and storage areas throughout the farm.
Estrella responded by recalling some of its cheeses and later revealed that its own tests between March and May 2010 showed the presence of Listeria in certain cheese products.
Following inspections in August that revealed the continued presence of Listeria at the creamery, the FDA in September asked co-owner Kelli Estrella to recall all of the creamery’s cheeses.
She responded to that request by refusing to recall all of the cheeses, saying that while the inspectors had found Listeria in some of the soft cheeses, the hundreds of wheels of hard cheeses were safe to eat.
Food-safety scientists say that soft cheeses such as Brie and Camembert are more likely to be contaminated with Listeria than are hard cheeses.
In early September, FDA inspectors also wrote up a report about the creamery, listing 10 “observations” ranging from inadequate handwashing to a leaking cooler.
According to the report, the “inspection observations” do not represent a final agency determination regarding whether or not the creamery is in compliance with state and federal laws.
Rolling up its legal sleeves, the FDA went to court in October, pointing to what was described as “the persistent presence” of Listeria at the creamery. Because of that, the agency said all of Estrella’s cheeses should be considered contaminated.
On Oct. 21, agents from the U.S. Marshal’s Service and the FDA went to the farm and seized all of its cheeses, under the authority of U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle.
In her statement posted on the creamery’s website, Kelli Estrella wrote: “Last night at about 5:30 (p.m.), three cars pulled into the yard with FDA and Federal Marshals, alarming our kids. They posted a seizure order that named all cheeses on the property. This is serious, it could put us out of business.”
She later referred to the seizure as “gestapo like.”
Co-owner Anthony Estrella told Food Safety News that he would like to think that if a regulatory agency found a problem, it would work with a business to fix the problem. He also said that the family had spent $40,000 to remodel the creamery “from top to bottom and side to side.”
“We’re in a very hard spot,” he said. “We’re about to lose our farm. We’re a hardworking family. We don’t want to hurt anyone. We want to do things right.”
Referring to the hard cheeses the FDA seized, Anthony Estrella said he’s not opposed to throwing away a bad product, “but I’m not willing to throw away my life.”
Emily Langlie, spokeswoman for the United States Attorney’s Office in Seattle, said Estrella has filed a claim for the seized cheeses and also for the manufacturing equipment that was marked as “can’t be used.”
“Both sides will work together on this,” she said.
But if the dispute can’t be resolved, Langlie said it will shift to the court process, which will be controlled by a district court judge. “If FDA’s concerns are not addressed, FDA is prepared to go to trial,” she said.
FDA’s Siobhan DeLancey confirmed that the case is still open. She also told Food Safety News said that if a product is made in a facility harboring Listeria, it can’t be assured to be safe. And just because a sample of a product, such as a wheel of hard cheese, tests negative doesn’t mean the entire product, itself, is safe.
“Things can be recontaminated,” she said. “It might not be the milk, itself.”
As for when this case will be resolved, DeLancey said the timing will be up to the courts and the Department of Justice.
In the meantime, friends of the Estrellas have set up a fundraiser to help the family pay for its legal bills, feed their six adopted children from Liberia, and pay other bills, such as mortgage, labor, and utility expenses. Donations of $10 will cover each 1 pound of cheese that Estrella is prohibited from selling.
“When we get all the cheese in their inventory paid for, Estrella has a good chance to weather this storm and continue to provide their cheese to those who enjoy artisan cheeses and want freedom of choice in their food,” says the fundraising site.
Editor’s note: Photo illustration is a stock photo and not from Estrella farm.