British Cheese-Makers Under Threat

British Cheese-Makers Under Threat

Arthur Cunynghame

As a professional cheese-maker reports, new EU laws are threatening the survival of UK specialist cheeses.

Cheese-making has long been practised in Britain. Amongst the earliest records are signs that Cheshire cheese was taken back to Rome by the Romans, and that the monks accompanying the Norman Conquest brought new recipes. Monks in particular were great practitioners of cheese-making, often with sheep’s milk. With the dissolution of monasteries in 1534 this craft passed from monasteries to farmers where it remained, for centuries, small-scale or artisanal. In 1870 the first cheese factory opened in Derby but farmhouse production continued to be the norm until the second World War, when as part of the war effort, farmhouse cheese production was banned as a wasteful use of labour and milk. Prior to the war, Britain could pride itself with around 15,000 cheese-makers, but by the end of the war, only 126 remained. Today there are a mere 350. By 1960 artisan cheese-making in Scotland was more or less dead and factory-made cheeses were the norm throughout Britain.

Over the last decade or so, there has been a dramatic increase in demand for `specialist’ food; a phenomenon apparent to any dispassionate observer of UK restaurants and food shops. Despite the significant opportunities that such a trend has provided for British specialist cheese-makers there are formidable obstacles hindering their very survival, particularly, though not exclusively, with regards to makers of unpasteurised cheeses. The vast growth in the number of supermarkets and their quasi-supply monopoly, the parallel decline of specialist shops, increasingly complex and bureaucratic regulations regarding hygiene and the threat of compulsory milk pasteurisation are the principal problems that cheese-makers face today.

Supermarkets are virtually the only outlet

Supermarkets have now multiplied to the point where they control 88 per cent of UK food. Supermarkets sometimes make a token show of selling artisan cheese, but for the most part artisan cheese purchasing does not fit their central economies of scale-based buying strategies. Since superstores tend to buy in large quantities, many small cheese producers do not qualify, or as is usually the case, any such large orders involve considerable risks for small producers. For example, some superstores have take-back policies in case a particular product has not sold by a certain date. However, no small cheese producer can afford this risk. On the other hand, it is a convenient excuse, to customers who demand more choice, for supermarket managers to point to their `quality control’ departments. These insist, quite unrealistically and unnecessarily, on hygiene control measures which are designed for large factories and are unsuitable and excessively costly for the smaller ‘hands-on’ approach of the specialist cheese-maker.

If supermarkets can sell cheese at a cheaper price than small artisanal producers it is largely because they have externalised a whole range of costs. One of the `real’ costs includes a drastic reduction in the quality of cheese. This is partly due to the fact that research among big cheese-makers is often directed at finding cheaper means of production, as they have done, for instance, with the introduction of accelase — an artificial additive to cheese which mimics the taste of mature cheese in a fraction of the time. At the same time they contribute to the decline of the local economies by flying in products from all over the world with the consequent increase in pollution and energy use.

They further destroy local economies by driving out of business small specialist shops. Unsurprisingly, the number of independent food retailers halved in number from 400,000 to 200,000 in the 10 years to 1996, thus cutting in half the potential number of customers for specialist cheese-makers — and this despite a buoyant demand amongst the public. In response UK government planners have done almost nothing to allow small specialist retailers to survive.

Regulations, regulations, regulations

Cheese-making seems to have been singled out as an activity requiring the strictest possible regulations. This even though cheese, whether pasteurised or not, accounts for just 0.1 per cent of food poisoning outbreaks. The main regulatory problems stem from the 1995 Dairy Product Hygiene Regulations; that are presently under review but whose replacements are likely to be even more restrictive. Among other things, existing regulations allow derogation from present microbiological standards for `cheeses of traditional character’. These regulations are now to be rendered so complex that it is likely that MAFF will eventually remove derogation altogether.

For cheese producers to understand the current draft of the replacement regulations they need a degree in microbiology and a corporate lawyer. On the subject of derogation a letter dated 16 November 1999 by the Minister for Agriculture reads as follows: `We are not empowered to maintain the derogation for microbiological criteria under European law.’ Although an annex to the letter admits that: `The scope for the commission to authorise member states to grant microbiological derogation for traditional products still remain’ — the wording is misleading and the essential question of which authority can evoke final decisions remains unanswered. On the other hand, a letter from Mr Ventura, Director of the EU Agriculture Directorate states that: `derogation remains strictly within the discretionary power of member states.’ These are two very different positions.

The complex web of bureaucracy in Brussels and Whitehall and the long drawn-out discussions on regulations may be in tune with the supermarkets’ way of doing business but it presents an austere and often impenetrable obstacle to small independent businesses.

EU regulations are subject to national interpretation; often with very different outcomes. For instance, the EU suggests keeping cheeses at temperatures that will not endanger human health. Whilst Scotland keeps to that wording England insists that the temperature must be kept below 8 [degrees]C. Since the latter requires the installation of costly refrigerators and in some cases reduces the gastronomic quality of the cheese, the difference between the two interpretations is huge.

EU regulation imposes a `zero tolerance’ for Listeria monocytogenes in cheese but it does not apply to other foods such as pates, meats and salads. However, it is the consumption of meat products that contributes to the majority of food poisonings. Given the fact that the EU Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Relating to Public Health concluded in two papers published in September 1999, that current microbiological criteria were not set as the result of a formal risk assessment and that they do not as a result appear to be meaningful in terms of consumer health protection, one would have thought that the committee would no longer recommend zero tolerance for Listeria monocytogenes. Yet it continues to do so. This is even more surprising in the view of the fact that `several countries have concluded that the complete absence of Listeria monocytogenes for certain ready-to-eat foods is an unattainable and unrealistic requirement that would restrict food production and consumption without having a positive impact on public health’.

The Government’s approach can not but put many small companies producing high quality cheese out of business. A well known example is that of Humphrey Errington, a producer of Lanark Blue Cheese who was accused in 1995 by Lanarkshire officials of producing cheese with exceptionally high levels of Listeria monocytogenes. Humphrey Errington was asked to withdraw his product from the market even though no illnesses had occurred among the many people who consumed the cheese, and even though the test results were inconsistent and unreliable. The case went to court where after a protracted case, the sheriff found in favour of Errington and commented that Listeria monocytogenes is a commonly found bacterium that rarely causes illnesses and that there was no evidence that the particular serotype 3A found in Lanark Blue was pathogenic. The sheriff recommended that enforcement should be less combative and confrontational and that enforcement actions should be based on public-health judgements and risk assessments and not on `end-product testing’ alone.

Another example ended less happily. The closure of James Aldridge’s business was threatened when Department of Health (DOH) ordered the destruction of 40,000 [pounds sterling] worth of cheese because of a single case of illness in the West Country. Despite the fact that Mr Aldridge’s cheese came from a different batch to the suspect cheese and despite extensive tests failing to show anything wrong with the cheese, the DOH insisted that, although the tests did not show any pathogens to be present, this did not mean that they were not present! Alice would have felt at home in the wonderland of Whitehall. The mandarins ruled that the cheese must be destroyed and no compensation could be claimed.

Yet another example is that of John Curtis who in 1998 decided to cease production of his prize-winning Bonchester cheese. `We need the freedoms restored that were our rights when we started production in 1980. Their confiscation has not been justified by subsequent events,’ he explained. `We condemn Parliament for their policy of appeasement to agribusiness and second rate scientists, and for lacking common sense and resolution when confronted by food scares. We deplore the destruction of the rural economy. We find the present regulatory regime intolerable. The benefits are obscure, but the suppression of enterprise and loss of freedom are obvious’.

Milk quality

In Britain, an estimated 67 per cent of cheese-makers buy in at least some of their milk as opposed to using only milk from their own herd. This number is set to grow and a number of artisan cheese producers are at a serious disadvantage because of the problems involved in obtaining the appropriate milk. Milk Marque is often the only viable source of milk and so enjoys considerable power. For specialist cheese-makers, the quality and character of the milk is of critical importance. This means knowing which farm the milk comes from and developing a close relationship with the owner or manager. However, Milk Marque no longer accepts the responsibility for the quality of the milk they supply, nor will they guarantee to inform the buyer from which farm the milk is derived. This is a major problem for the cheese-maker who is concerned with the quality of the milk and hence of the cheese he produces.

Pasteurization

The vast majority of UK produced cheeses (by volume) are pasteurised, but nonetheless there are probably over 200 cheesemakers using raw milk. It is estimated that 58 per cent of cheesemakers by number, use unpasteurised milk for at least one cheese with 45 per cent using only unpasteurised milk. Although the Minister for Agriculture announced that he did not intend to ban liquid raw milk, the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF) would like to enforce a ban on the grounds that unpasteurised milk and cheese significantly increase `food scares’ such as listerosis outbreaks.

However, there is plenty of evidence that unpasteurised milk cheeses do not pose a particular health threat. Cheese accounts for just 0.1 per cent of UK food poisoning outbreaks. Of that only a very small proportion will be unpasteurised and even with these there is usually no evidence that the problem was in the raw milk rather than a production problem which would be equally if not more applicable to pasteurised milk. One of the arguments used to stop small cheese producers using unpasteurised milk, is the growing incidence of tuberculosis. If a positive reactor is found in a particular herd, then the farm loses its TB-free status and is obliged to pasteurise its milk, in spite of the fact that 55 per cent of positive reactors prove, upon examination, not to be positive at all. What is more, pasteurisation must continue until there have been two clear tests over a period of at least 120 clays despite the fact that all positive reactors are slaughtered and that there is therefore no evidence that the rest of the herd has been affected. What happens to the farmer’s stock of cheese is still unclear, but these regulations remain a severe disincentive to the production of raw milk cheeses.

It should be clear that before passing such regulations, authorities should first of all assess what the risk really is and indications are that it is extremely low. One of the Food Standards Agency’s guiding principles is that actions should be proportionate to the risk but with TB the whole basis of the controls is unreliable and totally disproportionate. It is to be hoped that the FSA will act to change this before even more specialist cheese-makers go out of business.

On the other hand there is no doubt that pasteurisation is detrimental to milk quality. Unpasteurised milk has a higher nutritional value, it contains more vitamins, minerals and natural anti-infective agents which can restrict the growth of contaminating bacteria in the milk and thereby protect the consumer. The milk also has a far better taste and so does the cheese made from it. What’s more, the banning of non-pasteurised milk would be a disaster for many small producers. As Roger Scruton (Paxton & Whitfield Newsletter, Summer 1998) notes, he could never afford to pasteurise his own milk `and would be driven out of business’. Nor could the local economy. `It gains more from such small-scale production and distribution than from city-based agribusiness’. In fact `the only interests that would be served by a ban, are those of the supermarket chains who can afford to comply with any number of government regulations and who would be happy to see local distribution destroyed’.

Conclusion

It is not surprising that the average UK shopper and amateur of good cheese today knows more types of French and Italian cheeses than British ones. Whilst specialist cheeses from `the Continent’ are finding their way into Britain’s shops, government regulation is effectively encouraging this trend at the cost of local production. How can British cheese producers compete in their native marketplace when government regulation discourages their very existence?

What is needed is a rational approach towards hygiene and regulation but not one where food is rendered totally sterile. Good hygiene combined with encouragement of local products and the promotion of vigorous good health is not only possible but necessary. Specialist cheese-making especially with unpasteurised milk provides a role model for all foods with the twin benefits of: encouraging the resistance to disease which comes from eating natural wholesome foods which have not been unnecessarily processed; and encouraging the method of production that best satisfies social and environmental considerations. Such benefits should be easy to achieve with a product for which the public shows an increasing demand and yet in Britain the plethora of food regulations and subsidies seem to have been drafted with the interests of large businesses in mind. Whilst the government continues to churn out lengthy reports on the implications of Britain’s intolerably unhealthy diet of starchy processed foods laced with salt and sugar, and recommends that this diet be drastically modified, it continues to discredit and put obstacles in the way of producers who could bring about the very changes required.

Pasteurization and Heart Disease

According to a New Zealand scientist, a protein found in milk, not fat, is responsible for the heart disease epidemic in the Western world.

Roughly 80 per cent of the milk’s protein is casein, which exists in four varieties. Dr Corrie McLachlan believes that whilst the form of casein called beta-casein [A.sub.2] is benign, the other three, [A.sub.1] in particular, are not. In other words: the more beta-casein [A.sub.1] in the diet, the higher the risk of heart disease. He suspects that the single change in the amino-acid chain causes the protein to easily fragment and that one of the fragments may get into the bloodstream and be responsible for causing damage to the arteries. So why is heart disease a 20th-century phenomenon when milk has been consumed for centuries? Dr McLachlan, whose theory has just been published in the journal Medical Hypothesis, suggests that pasteurisation, introduced in America in Britain roughly one hundred years ago, may increase the fragmentation of the [A.sub.1] protein.

Arthur Cunynghame is managing director of the specialist cheese retailers, Paxton Whitfield and a past chairman of the Specialist Cheese-makers Association. This article is extracted from Cunynghame’s collection of papers Specialist Cheeses in Britain: Opportunities and Threats. Revised May 2000. For more information, email admin@cheesemongers.co.uk

COPYRIGHT 2001 MIT Press Journals

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