Five Scottish companies have launched a fundraising campaign for legal fees to challenge new inspection and enforcement guidance, including food safety measures, regarding raw milk cheese.

The guidance will effectively make production in Scotland unviable, according to the cheesemakers who specialize raw milk cheese.

It is focused on controlling microbiological risks in the production of artisan cheeses made from raw, unpasteurized milk such as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) including E. coli O157 and applies to all sites producing cheese made from unpasteurized milk from cows, goats, sheep and buffalo.

The document was produced by a working group of the Scottish Food Enforcement Liaison Committee (SFELC) and is to be used during inspection and enforcement of food safety controls by cheesemakers making product from unpasteurized milk.

Selina Cairns from Errington Cheese told Food Safety News that to satisfy the cheesemakers the guidance needs to be removed or re-written in consultation with industry and individual cheesemakers.

“They need to engage with us, due to their aggressive actions over the past couple of years there is a complete lack of trust both on our part and I think the general public and the publication of this document and the way it is written only makes things worse as they are continuing to attempt to make up their own rules without acting within the law or acknowledging various court judgement,” she said.

Errington Cheese, Isle of Mull Cheese, Finlays Farm, Galloway Farmhouse Cheese, and Cambus O May are hoping to challenge lawfulness of the guidance through a judicial review in the Court of Session. If FSS was to suspend the guidance, legal action would be stopped. The companies want to raise an initial £15,000 to pay for legal fees and are already half way toward the target.

Cairns said there is a three month window to challenge the guidance and there doesn’t appear to be any other way to address concerns about its potential impact.

“We have obviously tried writing to FSS (Food Standards Scotland) and asking for the guidance to be suspended, the first response to our solicitors was that they didn’t consider there was anything wrong with it. The second response said FSS would not consider changing it until December 2019 although within the response they appear to agree with the points raised,” she said.

“The third response said again that they would not suspend it and might add an addendum to the document following a meeting on 6 March, our legal advice following these correspondence is that this will only create more confusion to enforcement officers which is why we proceeded with the crowdfunding and intend to proceed with the judicial review.”

Cairns said the SFELC guidance has been written by individuals who do not understand the industry.

“On page five of the guidance there is a decision tree, which questions verification and validation for STEC – the only current way of doing this would be to pasteurize, so you move on to the sampling regime which requires STEC testing,” she said.

“No commercial labs are available to do this test currently in the UK for dairy products, there is no other method available apart from ISO 13136 which only covers the five main serotypes of STEC so no food producer is able to comply, the decision tree points then to the enforcement officer taking out enforcement action.

“In annex two, there is a very confusing table suggesting what should be required by a cheesemaker to demonstrate compliance with the decision tree. Aerobic colony counts on milk 50 times more stringent than the EU legislation, not following WHO, EU guidance that testing for hygiene indicators in the process would have a better effect on food safety.”

Cairns added it has fought hard to defend the business and wants to continue to try and re-build but the guidance prevents it from doing that.

Food Standards Scotland told Food Safety News it was aware of concerns raised about the guidance.

“This guidance has been produced for and by Scottish local authorities enforcing official controls in establishments involved in the production of cheese made from unpasteurized milk. The purpose of the guide is to ensure a consistent and proportionate approach is taken by enforcement officials within these establishments,” the agency said in a statement.

“It focuses on the control of risks associated with STEC, and provides a guide to the evidence that such food businesses need to provide to ensure that appropriate and proportionate food safety controls are in place to protect the consumer. Food producers can also talk to their local Environmental Health Officer at any time if they have any concerns. The safety of food being produced in Scotland is our paramount concern and we support all responsible food businesses who share that aim.”

FSS officials said SFELC consulted industry representatives and local authorities during development of the document and their comments were taken into account.

SFELC has already committed to reviewing the guidance and will consider issues identified. FSS and SFELC are meeting the Fine Cheesemakers of Scotland and Specialist Cheesemakers Association (SCA) to discuss the guidance in the next couple of weeks.

Cairns said the Fine Cheesemakers of Scotland is a marketing group with no technical expertise and while SFELC consulted with the SCA about two years ago it appears to have ignored most of the advice given to them.

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