“FDA restrictions keeping some great cheeses out of stores”

by Walter Olson on September 5, 2014

It’s happening just as warned. Janet Fletcher at the Los Angeles Times:

…cheese counters could soon be a lot less aromatic, with several popular cheeses falling victim to a more zealous U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Roquefort — France’s top-selling blue — is in the agency’s cross hairs along with raw-milk versions of Morbier, St. Nectaire and Tomme de Savoie. …

Of course, French creameries haven’t changed their recipes for any of these classic cheeses. But their wheels are flunking now because the FDA has drastically cut allowances for a typically harmless bacterium by a factor of 10.

The new rules have resulted in holds even on super-safe Parmigiano Reggiano, and the risk of losing a costly shipment of a perishable commodity is likely to be enough to drive many European producers out of the market for export to America entirely. Highly praised artisanal cheese makers in the United States are facing shutdown as well. [Michael Gebert, Chicago Reader] Earlier on the FDA and cheese regulation here and, from Cato, here (2010 predictions, before FSMA passed), here, here, etc.

They told us this administration was going to be run by wine and cheese faculty liberals. Now where are they when they could actually do us some good?

Related, note that the regulatory pressure is coming from both sides of the Atlantic: “Newsweek: French cheesemakers crippled by EU health measures” [Cheese Notes, with discussion of role of giant manufacturers whose processed cheese operations can comply with the rules] (& welcome The Week, Reason readers; cross-posted at Cato at Liberty)

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 MattS 09.05.14 at 12:24 am

“Now where are they when they could actually do us some good?”

Golfing with Obama?

2 Walter Olson 09.05.14 at 12:52 am

To me cheese is personal. Like, I think, many others, I found when I was starting out on my own that discovering great kinds of cheese (necessarily European back then) was a sort of rite of passage that made me feel truly grown up. I certainly couldn’t afford high-end restaurants; I was only beginning to learn to cook. But I could stop into a cheese shop and for a few bucks, plus the price of some good French bread, feel as if I was dining on the absolute best the world had to offer in that category.

I really wish they would just stop overprotecting us.

3 VMS 09.05.14 at 7:32 am

What’s everybody complaining about? They can always eat Kraft American cheese singles on pasty white bread, and they can even toast the bread if they so desire. Kraft singles come in both white and yellow, so there is variety.

Whoops! Even Kraft singles may be contaminated with bacteria! http://www.latimes.com/food/dailydish/la-dd-kraft-recall-american-cheese-singles-20140902-story.html

4 ceanf 09.05.14 at 9:26 am

but wait! i thought the government only created jobs?

5 rxc 09.05.14 at 9:48 am

You just don’t understand – what is most important about food is that it be (1) Safe, and (2) Nutritious, for the children. None of this foreign stuff is safe, and children won’t eat it. Listen to the children!

/sarc

Watching “Food Factory” or “How it is Made” on TV late at night is quite informative and entertaining. I bet the regulators at the FDA watch them, and get all sorts of bad feelings about our food supply which leads to regulations like this.

As a former regulator of a different industry, I can see soooo many opportunities for intervention and improvement as I watch these shows. One could build a real empire of bureaucracy on their backs.

6 Ron Miller 09.05.14 at 9:59 am

Don’t we need more discussion of the science of the risk before we analyze this further? Otherwise, it is hard to form an opinion.

7 Smallgovernmentguy 09.05.14 at 10:14 am

Ron Miller-

What risk? Please cite the large numbers of consumers who have died eating these foods and provide links.

8 Ron Miller 09.05.14 at 11:17 am

I’m not sure death is the only criteria we use to evaluate risk.

But I have NO IDEA. Let me be clear, SmallGuy, I know nothing about the risks associated with cheese. But I think any condemnation of a health care decision necessarily must come with the science of why the FDA is being over protective. The response can’t be a knee jerk “cheese never killed anyone I know so, ergo, it must be dumb.”

9 literate_engineer 09.05.14 at 11:37 am

The “risk” is that these cheeses contain … bacteria. And we all know know that any bacteria are bad. Of course this argument ignores all the bacteria that make up your biome that makes it possible for you to digest your food. The food police are ignoring/(ignorant) that bacteria are the basis of the making of cheese. The unique flavors and textures are based on specific bacteria and bacterial combinations. I forgot to add in molds as another tool in the creation of cheese. Penicillium roqueforti of some form or another has been noted since 79 AD as a substance that can make delicious cheeses.

10 John Thacker 09.05.14 at 12:48 pm

This particular bacterium is known to be completely benign. The FDA uses it as a marker to profile the cheese, believing that if it is present, other contamination is likely to also be there. The FDA recently cut its allowable amount for this harmless bacteria by 10 times.

They do have a professor at UConn who disagrees with the FDA.

11 John Thacker 09.05.14 at 12:49 pm

As the article notes, the FDA announced the rule without a comment period, and has offered no citations for why they did it.

12 En Passant 09.05.14 at 1:10 pm

They told us this administration was going to be run by wine and cheese faculty liberals. Now where are they when they could actually do us some good?

As the late, great columnist Herb Caen noted decades ago: for some, wine and cheese means Ripple and Velveeta.

13 Alton 09.05.14 at 2:01 pm

… Let me be clear, (RON MILLER), I know nothing about the risks associated with cheese. But I think any (NEW REGULATION) of a (CENTURIES OLD PRODUCT) necessarily must come with the science of why the FDA is being over protective. The response can’t be a knee jerk (“IT CONTAINS SCARY INGEDIENTS) so, ergo, it must be (REGULATED OUT OF EXISTENCE).”

14 marco73 09.05.14 at 2:14 pm

Bureaucrats have to justify a bigger budget every year. This isn’t about cheese safety, it is just a fiefdom building program.
So the FDA keeps putting their grubby paws on everything under the sun, creating problems that aren’t there.
How the heck can they justify a 21% budget increase this year? I’m sure not getting a 21% pay raise this year.

It takes them 531 pages to tell you. A highlight from their 2014 budget request:

FDA’s FY2014 Budget. In the attached budget, we are seeking targeted increases to fulfill our end of the partnership and deliver on the promise of FSMA and FDASIA for the American people. The budget request is $4.7 billion, an increase of $821 million, or 21 percent, over FY 2012. The budget includes investments to (1) accelerate implementation of FSMA, (2) modernize regulatory science and support implementation of FDASIA, in part through the new laboratory at White Oak and upgrades to other facilities, and (3) to strengthen FDA’s global oversight capacity and enhance trade with China, by improving the safety of foods and medical products imported into the United States…

15 gitarcarver 09.05.14 at 4:08 pm

Ron,

In some ways, I think we are talking about a lot of things in a simple post.

For example, according to the CDC, there have been 800 illnesses or deaths from consuming unpasteurized milk or cheese in the US since 1990. That is roughly one-sixth of a person a day out of over a 300 million population.

I am not sure whether we are talking about science or statistics. We will never be able to stop foods from making people ill. It just cant happen when you are talking about ingesting one living thing into another.

I think what we are talking about is “acceptable statistical risk.”

Certainly the FDA should try and make sure that the food chain is as safe as can be. But that doesn’t answer whether people have the right and the ability to consume things that may have increased risks if they are informed of the risk.

The questions that we should be asking is whether the FDA should be looking to eliminate *ALL* food risks in our lives (an impossible goal) or whether we as adults have the right to consume products that may nominally increase a health risk, but a risk that doesn’t affect others?

If we want the FDA to eliminate ALL risks, then there is no science that will ever foil the FDA regulations because as I said, foods can, do and will make people sick no matter what.

In some ways, discussions like this go to the basis of the role of government in our lives. If one thinks the government is there to protect us from all things wishing to do us harm, that is fine. On the other hand there are going to be people who believe that the role of government in these situations is to allow people the freedom to make informed choices.

As for me, I want to be able to make my own informed choices.

16 DensityDuck 09.05.14 at 7:43 pm

gitarcaver, the problem is that the kind of people who run the FDA believe that it is not possible for you to make an informed choice. They think that the only way to be informed is to study the situation for years, and have millions of dollars in studies, and also be a PhD in the subject. If you don’t meet all those criteria then you’re not informed–or, at least, you might not be informed, which means we have to proceed as though you aren’t.

The entire regulatory apparatus is predicated on the assumption that you’re an utter idiot who would drink lead paint if given the opportunity.

17 rxc 09.06.14 at 3:27 pm

We have serious problems dealing with risk in western society. Our brains are not naturally attuned to the mathematics (some of us will never become attuned to Bayesian math), and we react emotionally to stories of vulnerable people who get sick or die from something that is considered to be a poison.

The politicians HATE the concept of defining an acceptable level of risk, because this leads, inevitably, to someone calculating that “X-many people are allowed to die/be sickened each year” by this standard, and politicians cannot get re-elected with all these virtual bodies lying around. The laws are written to make these standards flexible so that (1) the bureaucrats can adjust them relatively easily, and (2) the bureaucrats (not the politicians) take the heat for them. This is not altogether a bad thing.

Until we can figure out how to avoid sensationalizing relatively rare events, which drives the mentality that calls for action “to make sure this never happens again”, we will never solve it. We should talk about it more, and the media, which is complicit in driving the process, needs to spend more effort figuring out how to explain risk to the public. I would think that “public” TV/radio would have a natural role here, but unfortunately they value their role as a muckraker more than a role as educator. It seems to be more satisfying to throw stones than to calm people down.

18 Bumper 09.06.14 at 8:07 pm

DD, not an assumption, but reality. After all, it took a majority of utter idiots to put these morons in office.

19 rxc 09.07.14 at 7:15 am

@DD The entire regulatory apparatus is predicated on the assumption that you’re an utter idiot who would drink lead paint if given the opportunity.

Not quite – the assumption is that someone might drink lead paint, and there would be an uproar about it, because that person is an idiot and the activists earn their living by garnering compassion for idiots who do stupid things. In the end it amounts to a collective punishment of the entire society because there happen to be a few stupid people who do dumb things.

If lots of people drank lead paint, they would ban lead paint and we would end up with a war on lead paint, searches and seizures of lead paint, lead paint rehab programs, lead paint smuggling, etc.

20 asdfasdf 09.07.14 at 11:06 am

This policy change affected my local cheese shop. I could not get a number of good french cheeses (Roche Sulens Fenouille for example), nor some Neal’s Yard cheeses. It’s sad for me on a personal level; I love good cheese. And it’s sad for the people who’ve devoted their lives and careers to making or selling cheese and seeing their livelihoods destroyed.

I guess the government is just making a point that they can do whatever they want, for as transparently specious a reason as can be imagined. Who knows. Actually my non-lawyer foodie friends ask me “why is the FDA doing this”, but I don’t really have an answer. It’s a bit difficult to explain fifty years of administrative law and the byzantine politics of the regulatory state, and laypeople wouldn’t believe it if you tried.

Is there anything realistically that can be done? All the artisan cheese vendors in the U.S. and France couldn’t touch the legal budget of the FDA, they’d all go bankrupt long before prevailing in court, thanks to “judicial deference” and friends.

21 Hugo S. Cunningham 09.07.14 at 12:23 pm

@ASD–

Either Congress or the President have the power to overrule the FDA on this question, and order them, as far as cheese is concerned, to revert to their former reasonable standard. For Congress, it would be as simple as any of the hundreds of other “constituent service” amendments they slip in each year.

It is easier these days for cheese-lovers to attract the attention of politicians with on-line petitions

22 Smallgovernmentguy 09.07.14 at 2:04 pm

asdfasdf -

The only answer I can think of is in my handle. The only hope I see is the libertarian movement in general and Rand Paul in particular.

23 Ron Miller 09.09.14 at 12:37 pm

“I am not sure whether we are talking about science or statistics. We will never be able to stop foods from making people ill. It just cant happen when you are talking about ingesting one living thing into another.”

Absolutely. But that is not the end of the analysis. As a society, we still have to look at the risk and make a call.

Many people here are just assuming that the FDA is going too far. Maybe you are right. But instead of just a knee jerk “this conforms with my world view, there it must be” I was just hoping for a little science on this particular cheese.

A part of the problem reading these posts is the assumption that the FDA is just so dumb they are confusing bacteria with bad. Your opponents are not that simplistic. I disagree with the FDA on a zillion things but I think this whole “they are so dumb they just don’t get it” view obscures the kind of scientific rigor this discussion would have to require.

24 gitarcarver 09.09.14 at 2:28 pm

As a society, we still have to look at the risk and make a call.

Why?

There are billions of people around the world that drink and consume products that are made from non-pasteurized milk.

Statistically, the number of people that become ill is very small to the point where it is insignificant.

The science says that we will never eliminate the risk of getting sick from consuming non-pasteurized milk products.

The science is not in doubt.

So the question is “if I know the risks and make an informed decision to consume non-pasteurized milk products with a statistically small chance of becoming ill, how is that a concern of ‘society’?”

Does my choice to consume said products affect anyone other than myself? Even if a case can be made that it affects my family, does it affect “society?” If there is no effect on society, why does “society” have a say in the issue at all?

A part of the problem reading these posts is the assumption that the FDA is just so dumb they are confusing bacteria with bad.

Maybe. But a part of the problem is that the FDA assumes that informed consumers are so dumb that we cannot make decisions for ourselves.

While I appreciate your call for an examination of the “science,” there is no science to examine in that people on both sides of the issue think and realize that non-pasteurized milk products may pose a health risk. Statistically, that risk is infinitesimal.

The science is settled. The statistics are settled.

The only thing to discuss is whether the FDA (or any government agency) should try and limit my ability to make informed choices that harm no one other than a small risk of harming myself.

THAT’S the issue.

25 Boblipton 09.09.14 at 3:15 pm

However, Gitarcarver, you clearly are incapable of making an informed decision, since your decision differs from the FDA. Whether this is because You Don’t Know All the Facts or You Are Not Smart Enough To Make A Decision is irrelevant to the process. The FDA, which knows everything on the subject — at least until the next report comes out reversing the current accepted wisdom, which they will ignore — has declared that 2+2 is 16.83401332211503459. Your insistence that it equals 4 is clearly wrong.

Bob

26 MF 09.09.14 at 6:22 pm

Ah, so @Boblipton, what you’ve apparently revealed is that we now know the true origin of Common Core – the FDA!

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