Operators of five Scottish companies plan to go ahead with a judicial review after raising money for legal fees to challenge government guidance on making cheese from unpasteurized, raw milk.

The guidance is focused on controlling microbiological risks during the production of artisan cheeses made from raw, unpasteurized milk. The risks include, but are not limited to, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) including E. coli O157. The guidance applies to sites producing cheese made from unpasteurized milk from cows, goats, sheep and buffalo.

The document comes from 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.

Feedback from industry representatives and local authorities has been incorporated into the guidance, which was published in December 2018, according to Food Standards Scotland (FSS).

Errington Cheese, Isle of Mull Cheese, Finlay’s Farm, Galloway Farmhouse Cheese, and Cambus O May will challenge lawfulness of the guidance through a judicial review in the Court of Session after raising the £15,000 (U.S. $19,600) to pay for legal fees and since it has not been amended or suspended despite previous requests.

They can only take legal action to challenge the guidance for three months after it is issued, with that date being March 21, 2019.

The cheesemakers sent a pre-action protocol letter to FSS, and because of what they saw as an unsatisfactory response, are proceeding with preparing the judicial review petition as recommended by their lawyers.

Errington Cheese said the backing shows the level of public support for farmhouse raw milk cheese making in Scotland and a lack of trust in the decision making and advice from FSS.

FSS and SFELC met with the Specialist Cheesemaker’s Association (SCA) this past week to discuss concerns raised by the association’s members, who include Galloway Farmhouse Cheese, Errington Cheese, Finlay’s Farm and Cambus O May, about the guidance.

A statement from FSS said during the meeting, cheesemakers made a number of proposals for changes to the guidance and they would be collated by the SCA and fed back to FSS and SFELC.

“FSS and SFELC agreed that it will be possible to make some of these changes quickly and that they would continue to review the guidance, in light of input from the SCA and its members, prior to its finalization in December 2019.”

Representatives from Scotland Food and Drink, the Scottish Agricultural Organization Society and Provision Trade Federation attended the meeting.

In response, Selina Cairns of Errington Cheese posted a statement on the company’s website describing the meeting as feeling like a “PR stunt” on behalf of FSS.

“I have no confidence that they have accepted or learnt anything over the past few years in relation to raw milk cheese and they are still committed from the top to eradicating our small industry,” she said.

“I felt the other organizations present intervened in a very unhelpful manner and clearly had not listened to the cheesemakers about our concerns and were more interested in pushing their own agenda and… then pushing an inaccurate conclusion of the meeting that it had been a success – success maybe to them and FSS but not for the cheesemakers as we are no further forward apart from a vague and unsubstantive reassurance that FSS do not have it in for raw milk cheese in Scotland.”

However, there were some positives according to Cairns.

“The new chairperson for the SFELC subgroup for raw milk cheese who is part of the environmental services team at South Lanarkshire Council made the effort to come and talk to me after the meeting which I very much appreciate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the application of the legislation and best practice in relation to raw milk cheese making and hope that we can move on positively from that.”

Andrew Kuyk, director general of the Provision Trade Federation, said he did not share some views on social media about the nature or conduct of the meeting.

“My own understanding was that it was never intended to be a detailed technical examination of all issues arising from the enforcement guidance document or a decision-making forum in respect of potential changes, which can only be the responsibility of FSS themselves as the relevant regulatory body,” he said.

“I welcome the progress made towards resolving outstanding issues and ensure the continued production of safe, quality cheese within a proportionate and robust enforcement framework. The meeting did provide an opportunity for cheesemakers to make directly a number of proposals for changes to the guidance and to establish a process for taking further concerns into account. FSS and SFELC also clearly agreed that it would be possible to make some of these changes quickly and that they would continue an active review process in the light of further feedback.”

  • Editors note: This article was updated on March 13, 2019 to include comments from the Provision Trade Federation


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