Strengthening farmstead cheese businesses through risk assessment, reduction, monitoring, testing, and technical support
From milk through finished cheese, this project is researching, developing, and pilot testing a product safety risk reduction program for farmstead cheesemakers and convert the added-value of program participation into a marketing advantage. Producers will assess the impact of the program on their business and research the feasibility of forming an organization to make the program self-sustaining. If found to be viable, the project will result in a technical assistance, testing and marketing association.
The project takes work by the region’s universities to help farmstead cheesemakers develop Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) food safety plans, to the next level: a formal system for monitoring plans, independent verification through testing, with results going to the farm and a technical advisor, and assistance for corrective action if needed. The project adapts the well-established European Union (EU) Directives for risk reduction to New England/NY. The project’s technical advisor will work with cheesemakers in an on-farm pilot to not only develop, but monitor and verify HACCP plans by testing for microbiological contaminants and help the farm work through any problems surfaced by testing.
Because these extra steps will cost producers more money, the project will conduct business planning for a formal association that can provide technical assistance, testing services and also undertake marketing and promotional efforts targeted at wholesale and retail buyers to return the added value of the program to producers who adopt a verifiable risk reduction regime as part of their operations.
Of the 100 farmers who participate in one of three Farmstead Cheese Safety Risk Reduction Seminars, 20 will join the New England/NY Farmstead Cheese Pilot Program. Of these, fifteen will adopt the risk assessment, monitoring and testing systems developed by the pilot program as a permanent feature of their operation and will form the core of a regional cheesemakers association to provide on going technical assistance, testing and marketing services to members. These farms will take this action because the program 1) produced a quantifiable increase in the profitability of their operations, over and above its cost, by the prevention of the loss of at least one batch of cheese and/ or by retaining or adding or expanding a market outlet and 2) made the cheesemakers feel more secure, more positive and less anxious about the future of their industry.
Milestone 1: 100 cheese producers will attend one of three seminars on farmstead cheese safety risk reduction to learn how to use HACCP risk analysis and planning to reduce potential for pathogen contamination of their products. Verified by attendance records and workshop evaluations.
2007: With the help of state cheese maker organizations and Cooperative Extension, four day-long HACCP Seminars were held around region (NY, CT, VT, ME) to provide training on HACCP planning and recruit farms for the risk management program. NH farms were invited to attend the VT and CT workshops; MA invited to VT and CT workshops, RI to CT workshop, and VT to NY and VT workshops. 5 of the farms had a HACCP plan in place; all but one farm felt their knowledge of HACCP had increased; and all but 4 farms indicated they would look for and be more aware of contamination points and or write or update a HACCP plan. From the 70 participants, 24 farms signed-up for the program, 22 joined and 21 stayed with it. They are a mix of large and small producers from VT, NY, ME, MA and CT who make sheep, goat and cow cheeses, some from milk produced on-farm, some from off the farm and some from both.
Milestone 2: 20 farmers will see the value of going one step further and enter into a pilot program to verify through testing the effectiveness of their HACCP plans and work together to plan a self-sustaining association to carry on the program.
2007: 24 farms signed-up for the program, 22 joined and 21 are still members of the pilot. Seminars were evaluated; pre-pilot survey was collected. The latter forms the basis for the project database which tracks sample data and technical assistance. Site visits were held on pilot farms; HACCP reviewed; sampling protocols put in place and farmers trained to collect and ship samples; samples collected, analyzed and test results reported. Approximately 400 raw milk, 120 cheese, and 120 environmental samples were tested. Identified problems were discussed and solved.
2008: Of the 21 participants in the 2007 pilot project, 17 farmstead cheesemakers remained committed to inclusion in the pilot group and agreed to pay for the testing themselves. Four of the original participants decided not to continue in 2008 because the cost of testing did not justify the value of the project to them. However, they thought that the project was valuable to them in 2007 when the cost was covered by SARE. Two of these remaining 17 cheesemakers were not able to operate sampling/testing programs in 2008, citing personal reasons, but remain committed to the project. Two new farmstead cheesemakers joined the group in 2008, for a total of 19 in year two of the pilot.
Milestone 3: 15 farms will determine that the program should become a permanent part of their operations.
2008: 17 farmstead cheesemakers continued to monitor their risk reduction programs with periodic sampling and testing of milk, cheese and the environment. Be the end of 2008, 11 had stayed with the sampling/testing aspect of program for their entire time of cheese production, which ranged from six to twelve months depending on ruminant species and management style, e.g. seasonal or year-round; follow-up interviews will determine why the other cheesemakers did not continue their sampling/testing for the entire production period. Preliminary indications point to any of the following reasons: economic constraints, time constraints, adequate regulation in their own states, and confidence in quality and risk reduction because of improvements made in 2007.
Milestone 4: 15 farmers will institutionalize milk and cheese risk management planning and testing into a New England/NY certification, technical assistance and marketing association and seek the participation of other cheesemakers in the association.
The Vermont Cheese Council decided to pursue a quality assurance/risk reduction program. Eight of the pilot project participants are Vermont producers. The project will work with the VCC to develop a model program that can be adopted by other states.
Interviews with farmstead/artisan cheese buyers across the US found strong interest in a program which would provide documentation of best practices from milk to cheese production to shipping, handling, and distribution would provide assurance and traceability that would satisfy food safety risk and cheese quality needs.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
1. To maintain buyer belief in and assurance of the quality of farm made cheeses, cheese-makers need to do more than current regulations require.
2. While the federal/state systems in place for testing milk for total bacteria counts are adequate for assuring food safety, sampling that differentiates total bacteria counts into groups of bacteria for closer evaluation enables cheese-makers to be proactive in finding and fixing problems before they occur. For example differentiating the sample to determine presence of Staphylococcus aureus, as is done in the EU, and bacteria in the Coliform group alerts the cheese-maker to identify the sources of potential pathogens and take actions to prevent an accumulation that will eventually raise the total bacteria count above the regulated limit.
3. The environmental testing aspect of the pilot was very effective. These points of contamination are not currently regulated. For example producers were able to identify and take actions to eliminate potential pathogens in drains, floors, storage areas and added ingredients.
4. All the cheese-makers in the pilot program saw the benefits of self-directed actions to identify potential points of contamination in their operations (milk, environment, cheese) and the ability to verify the presence/or not of contaminants through periodic testing. Many mentioned the value of consistent testing and the timely reporting of results as a means to improve their sanitary and hygienic practices, particularly in the production of milk and in the daily operations of the creamery where cheese is made, aged, packaged, and stored before delivery.
5. The primary barrier for the cheese-maker to doing testing was “finding the time.” Improvements to cheese quality (flavor, texture, etc.) and increases in the number of successful batches were related more to assistance and education of the cheese-maker in the technical aspects of making and aging cheeses rather than from information gained from testing.
6. Current regulations that provide for cheese testing are not necessarily directed towards testing cheeses with the highest risk to public health. Testing by the cheese-maker was effective in preventing an unsafe product from reaching the market.
7. A risk reduction program should be an integrated partnership of state regulators combined with self-regulation by the cheese-maker, which should be required to obtain a license to process milk.
As a consequence of this input, a program that integrates state regulation and self-monitoring to reduce the risk of a farm made cheese reaching the market will be further evaluated. It may include the following elements:
1. Milk testing: Twice monthly sampling and testing of milk used for cheese production. At minimum, one sample should be differentiated; at best, both samples would be differentiated to include testing of Staphyloccus aureus and Coliform bacteria. As is now the typical practice, one sample would be collected by the state for testing at the state lab. This would be followed in two weeks by another collected by the cheese-maker, which would be tested at an independent, certified lab such as the Agi-Mark Central Lab in West Springfield, MA. The cost to producer @ $25/ sample for shipping and testing. Technical assistance to identify and solve any potential problem provided though VIAC, VCC or private consultants. The records of the two milk tests should be viewed by the state inspector and the producer on a monthly basis.
2. Environmental testing: A plan for environmental testing of the creamery should be developed by state regulators with the assistance of the producer. Once every two months the producer collects samples from at least four potential points of contamination for testing at the state lab. One additional sample of cheese brine should be tested. State inspector to work with producer to identify where to sample, how to sample, and what to test for. Sampling of sites in the cheesemaking and brining areas should be done when in production; sites in the aging rooms and packaging area should be sampled all year round. Technical assistance to identify and solve any potential problem provided though VIAC, VCC or private consultants.
3. Cheese testing: Monthly sampling of highest risk cheeses by the state. Inspectors will work with producers to identify the highest risk raw milk cheeses from a food safety perspective, e.g. high moisture, surface-ripened, low acid at time of consumption. To ensure that pasteurization is effective, in addition to reviewing posted pasteurization charts, inspectors will sample pasteurized cheeses aged less than 60 days to ensure that the risk of post pasteurization contamination is low. This amounts to at least two samples of cheese each month. Technical assistance to identify and solve any potential problem provided though VIAC, VCC or private consultants.
4. These criteria will be included in cheese-maker licensing standards.
5. State inspectors need education and technical support to be able to work with producers to develop environmental sampling plans and to identify cheeses that pose a high risk to public health. Producers need education and technical support to develop HACCP-style monitoring plans, training in how to take and package samples, and interpretation of results to solve problems to avoid risks to public health