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Local Cheesemakers Stand up to FDA

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ROGUE RIVER, Ore. – Vern Caldwell gently brushes the rind of an aged wheel of cheese over an open grate as he prepares it for cutting. The act of love is the culmination of a process rife with age-old tradition.

“Some of the most important things we do are the same as it has been done forever,” said Gianaclis Caldwell, co-owner and cheesemaker at Pholia Farm.

But Pholia Farm, along with a number of other cheesemakers in the state, say those traditions are at risk thanks to safety standards they claim are ill-suited for a business that relies on bacteria to make its product.

“As long as I’ve been doing business, which is about 8 years now, it’s been a constant new issue that comes to the horizon that has to be pushed back,” said Caldwell.

The Food Safety Modernization Act, passed in 2010, expanded the FDA’s authority to enforce safe food handling practices everywhere from the farm to the manufacturing plant.

Even today it continues to inspire new rules and regulations, the latest of which being a short-lived attempt to ban one of cheese making’s oldest traditions — aging on wood boards.

“In Wisconsin alone, 30-million pounds of cheese a year are aged on wood,” said Caldwell. “That’s an enormous amount.”

That effort was halted in a day in the face of unrelenting backlash from cheesemakers across the country. But Caldwell says other nearly-passed rules — things like insurance requirements and expensive third-party certifications — have put them at risk of shutting down.

That’s part of the reason cheesemakers in the state say they’re craft is teetering on a knife’s edge.

“We lost four cheesemakers this past month, meaning they shut down or are planning on shutting down,” said Caldwell.

But Caldwell says the growing demand for local foods is fueling a movement among cheesemakers to organize.

And while some may drop out along the way, she says that safety net is keeping their influence, and craft, alive.

“As long as we keep working on our craft, and improving it, and sharing it, then I think the future is wide open,” said Caldwell.