By Aaron Estes, Cheese Editor
One of my favorite things to do on a Saturday morning here in New York City is to head to Union Square to explore the Greenmarket where farmers and vendors from across the state converge on this square year-round every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Farmers, craftsman and cheesemakers depend on farmer’s markets as one of their main sources of income -- these markets are particularly essential for small-scale cheesemakers to turn a profit.
A perfect example is a cheesemaker that I have worked with on several occasions up in Vermont. He is able to sell his cheese to a distributor for anywhere from $10 - $12 per pound wholesale. That distributor then sells it to restaurants, cheese shops and other specialty grocers at a mark up and keeps the profit.
This same cheesemaker can sell his own cheese at a farmer’s market for close to $20 per pound -- and he keeps that profit all for himself. He's also able to connect directly with his customers, relationships are established and those customers return the following week. Farmer's market presence can be essential.
As I made my rounds to the various vendors and cheesemakers this past Saturday, all of the talk concerned a new interpretation of an existing regulation that could seriously jeopardize cheesemakers and their place in the Greenmarket.
One of the cheesemakers at the market received a phone call from Ag & Market, stating that cheesemakers would no longer be able to hand cut cheese or cut samples for customers onsite unless they had an Article 20c license.
An Article 20c license -- at a high level -- is granted to businesses to ensure that foods purchased for consumption in New York State are manufactured and processed under proper sanitary conditions.
No problem, right? Any cheesemaker who would like to bring his or her cheese to market and cut to order need only apply for license. The problem is that, according to the vendors I spoke with, a 20c license won’t be granted unless the business owner has certain measures in place to ensure compliance.
One of these stipulations is having a permanent structure with hot and cold running water, presumably to create a sanitary environment suitable for distributing food for human consumption. This means at the farmer's market, at the point of sale and customer contact in the market, not back on the farm.
Not so simple now is it?
Without permanent structures with running water at the markets, cheesemakers will have to pre-cut and wrap all of their cheese prior to arriving at the market. So, this is the scenario that could unfold:
“Would you like to try a sample of my cheese? Great! Let me take out this small and dried out piece that I have in Tupperware that I cut several hours ago before I made the trip.I can’t cut you a piece from this wheel here, because it might be unsanitary, but you can have this crusty piece that I am sure you will love… Would you like a smaller wedge than this size here? A larger one? Sorry…”
Can the Cheesemaker use an entire wheel as visual aide and talking point in bringing people in? Yes. Can they cut from it? No.
Now some people might argue that the hot and cold running water would allow the vendor to clean the knife after cutting cheese. Unless the knives are used to cut things other than cheeses, and the vendors don’t use sanitary wipes and paper towels (every cheesemaker that I have met does this), I think you would be hard pressed in finding a risk of contamination.
Due to the pathogens and bacteria that are known to propagate in raw milk products (think listeria and E.coli), creameries are inspected multiple times a month. Dairy inspectors come and examine everything from floor drains and foot baths, to milk containers and whey disposal. Sanitation is everything to making cheese, so what is the benefit of this regulation? Having a permanent structure with hot and cold running water in Union Square is completely untenable for the small producers that rotate at the market on a weekly basis.
What would this accomplish? Creameries are inspected more often and more thoroughly than any restaurant or café. Is there that much risk for contamination from a dairy farm that has passed multiple dairy inspections?
There has been a lot of talk about the FDA and regulations for cheese making and dairy farms. If you aren’t familiar with Sally Jackson and her creamery closing just this past December due to a large cheese recall, I encourage you to read a few articles online as it has a major impact on small-scale producers, raw-milk cheeses, and the artisanal community here in the United States. You can read about the recall from the FDA’s perspective here. As counterpoint, here is a copy of Sally Jackson’s letter in response. Polarizing to say the least.
Max McCalman in his book “Mastering Cheese” discusses the whole idea of raw milk cheeses and contamination. The FDA regulates that all raw milk cheeses must be aged a minimum of 60 days before they are allowed for human consumption. The idea is that after 60 days, listeria and other pathogens are eradicated. Max argues that if the milk is contaminated, and the listeria is already present in the milk, wouldn’t the bacteria actually have more opportunity to propagate after 60 days? It all starts with the milk. Bad milk is bad milk.
If a creamery has passed multiple inspections, and the cheesemaker brings a wheel of his or her cheese to a farmer’s market for me to try (direct from the farm that has passed multiple inspections), is that not enough to assuage our fears of contamination?
This process seems to be a new enforcement of a standing regulation. The cheesemaker I spoke to received a phone call the night before going to Union Square, so the long-term effects are yet to be seen. But people are already incredibly frustrated. This could potentially have a major impact on their ability to establish themselves in the market and sell their cheeses.
This new interpretation clearly favors the larger producers who do not rely upon a farmer’s market presence, but mass produce their products in large industrial plants. Regulations such as this make it more difficult for the small artisanal producer to gain a foothold in the market, bring their unique products to the consumer, and contribute to the thriving artisanal cheese community that is struggling to grow and thrive in New York State.