Cutting the Cheese

A proposed set of new state regulations have cheese retailers freaked out.

Washington cheese retailers are protesting a proposed change to state law which would require them to trash cut-into soft cheeses after seven days.

The state periodically revises its food code to bring it in line with scientific knowledge and federal standards. Many of the drafted revisions now being reviewed are seemingly innocuous: If the revisions are approved, raw oysters and undercooked meat will no longer be allowed on children's menus, and sellers of foraged mushrooms will have to provide documentation that their product isn't toxic. But the date-marking clauses have spawned a noisy clamor in the state's cheese community.

"Everybody is definitely very nervous about it," says Sheri LaVigne of The Calf and Kid.

The new rule doesn't apply only to cheese: Deli meats, pans of lasagna, and many other foods requiring refrigeration would all have to be tossed a week after being opened, cut, sliced, or repackaged. According to Joe Graham, the Department of Health's food-safety program technical lead, about two-thirds of states have adopted similar measures. "Oregon has had it for maybe 10 years, and they've just gotten adjusted to it," Graham says.

Date-marking is intended to combat Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria that annually infects about 800 Americans. Listeria is especially hazardous to infants, pregnant women, and the elderly, and kills one of out of every three people treated for the disease. Limiting a food's shelf life reduces the risk of Listeria growth, Graham says.

But LaVigne thinks the government should focus its Listeria-fighting efforts on cheese producers, not cheese sellers. "It's so retarded because it's a case of the FDA again addressing potential hazards at the retail level, which is the last level," she says. "They're saying 'It would be impossible to police the cheesemakers, but we can police you.' It's a case of not dealing with the issue at hand."

She wishes cheesemakers would be forced to adopt more rigorous testing protocol. "I know one cheesemaker in Idaho who tests his milk three times," LaVigne says. "He said doing three rounds costs $1.40 a pound, which is totally absorbable for a small retail market."

What a small retailer can't abide, she adds, is throwing out pounds of good merchandise every week. While a test for Listeria exists, it's expensive and unwieldy when applied to cheese. Testing cheeses which have reached their sell-by dates is "not feasible," Graham says, which is why the new rule presumes a Listeria threat.

LaVigne thinks the rule should distinguish between groceries, where meats and cheeses are likely to commingle on cutting boards, and cheese shops with dedicated cheese-cutting areas. "Some stuff, like Seastack, can be sold as a whole, but the large, gooey French cheeses, you have to cut into them," LaVigne says.

The Department of Health is scheduled to hold a public hearing in June, and it's likely many cheese retailers will be there to fight the measure.

"This would severely screw anyone who's a cut-to-order retailer," says LaVigne.

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