The second version of guidance on the production of cheese made from unpasteurized, raw milk published by Food Standards Scotland has been welcomed by a group that campaigned against the initial document.
Five Scottish cheesemakers launched a Crowdjustice funding campaign in February, raising £15,000 for legal fees allowing preparation and submission of a judicial review. Initially, the group requested a suspension of the guidance so changes could be considered but then sought legal support and lodged a petition.
Money was spent on preparing and submitting the petition for judicial review. As the guidance was changed, the firms stopped legal action that would have involved another round of crowdfunding.
Errington Cheese’s Dunsyre Blue cow’s milk cheese was linked to an E. coli O157 outbreak in Scotland in 2016. There were 26 confirmed patients. A 3-year-old girl died.
The first version of the guidance was published in December 2018, less than two years after the outbreak, and was intended to be finalized in December 2019. The updated version is here. The guidance is on controlling microbiological risks during the production of artisan cheeses made from raw milk. Risks include Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) including E. coli O157.
The document is to be used during inspection and enforcement of food safety controls by cheesemakers making product from unpasteurized milk from cows, goats, sheep and buffalo.
Errington Cheese, Isle of Mull Cheese, Galloway Farmhouse Cheese, Cambus O’May Cheese Co. and Finlay’s Farm Ltd. said the guidance had undergone “significant” changes that secure the future of raw milk cheese production in Scotland, so a full judicial review was no longer required.
A statement from Food Standards Scotland said revisions to the guidance were agreed after a meeting in March between FSS, the Scottish Food Enforcement Liaison Committee, and representatives of the raw milk cheese sector, including the Specialist Cheesemakers Association and Fine Cheesemakers of Scotland, and not through the legal challenge.
“It had been made clear at this meeting that the guidance was always intended to be reviewed, and at no stage was it in breach of EU law. Therefore it was entirely unnecessary for this legal challenge to be made after this meeting,” according to the statement.
Selina Cairns, director at Errington Cheese, said the action they had taken was necessary.
“We don’t believe that Food Standards Scotland would have made any changes to the document had we not gone ahead with the judicial review – only made possible by the support given to the crowdfunding campaign,” she said.
“We’re extremely hopeful that this is the last chapter of what has been an incredibly hard couple of years, with actions from FSS having detrimental impacts on our business and sales growth. Now that we have fair and achievable guidelines in place, we look forward to getting back on track with production and sales, with the hope that we can begin to rebuild our local workforce.”
Producers summarized the changes including requirements to test for STEC, around the pathogenicity of STEC and in relation to micro limits.
FSS rejected as “inaccurate” the claim that changes were agreed only as a result of the legal challenge.
“Contrary to the statement made by the cheese producers, the amendments made to the guidance were not substantive, and the description of changes presented by the producers is inaccurate and misleading so it is not worth commenting further on their summary,” said the agency.
“The revisions, which would have been made regardless of this legal challenge, serve to provide additional clarity in relation to sampling and testing, and the actions that would be taken when tests show a potential food safety risk.”
Guidance will continue to be updated on an on-going basis but a full review will happen in April 2022 taking into account newly available scientific data to determine whether the enforcement approach is still appropriate.
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