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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cheese Should Not Be Licensed

I just returned from hearing Joel Salatin speak here in Portland about how food safety regulations burden small farmers and producers to the detriment of local food systems and the consumers who would be healthier and happier eating real food produced by people they know. I was prepared for Salatin's firebrand speaking style, overloaded with lengthy descriptions, such as "a disconnected, Greco-Roman, Western, egocentric, compartmentalized, reductionist, fragmented, linear thought process," "irradiated, amalgamated, prostituted, reconstituted, adulterated, modified, and artificially-flavored, extruded, bar-coded, un-pronounceable things," and "mob-stocking hervbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization." I didn't expect to hear him speak about food safety, though I know that railing against those who proclaim to keep our food "safe" is a favorite topic of his. After the way my week started, getting the chance to hear this vocal advocate of local food systems speak and to talk briefly with him while he signed my copy of his book Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, connected my problems, as a home cooking instructor wanting to introduce people to the tastes and textures of real food and a home food producer wishing I could sell what I make to my friends and neighbors, to the catastrophe that is our modern food system.

A couple months ago, the manager of my favorite farmers market asked me if I would do a cooking demonstration at the market. Delighted and honored, I happily agreed to do several demonstration over the coming months. The manager mentioned that many people she talks with at the market don't even know how to make salad dressings, so for my first demo, I showed market visitors not only how to make salad dressings at home, but mayonnaise and ketchup as well and discussed how to use those as foundations for other condiments, like tartar sauce, barbeque sauce, and sweet and sour sauce. People sampled my creations and told me how inspired they were by the demonstration and to see how simple it can be to make these tasty accompaniments at home. Pat myself on the back for a job well done--inspiring and empowering people to cook at home is what this is all about for me.

For my second demonstration, I decided to show folks how to make soft dairy products at home, like yogurt, ricotta, chevre, buttermilk, sour cream, and creme fraiche. These are all dead-easy to make and they taste so much better than what's available in plastic tubs at the grocery store. While they are easy to make, culturing dairy does take time. Yogurt takes eight or more hours to set up once it's been cultured. Chevre must be cultured for several hours, then drained for a couple more. Sour cream and creme fraiche can take up to 24 hours to achieve their proper consistency. Since I know that tasting the real deal is a big part of convincing people that making these foods is worth the little bit of effort, I made batches of everything ahead of time so that I could offer samples. As I set up in the demonstration booth, a certain busybody market vendor, who shall remain anonymous, came up and told me that Oregon Department of Agriculture regulations prohibit anyone from offering samples of food prepared in a non-licensed kitchen. "As a market member, I'm concerned about the market's liability," she said. In preparation for starting up my business teaching cooking classes, I had looked into the state regulations and from my research, my understanding was that as long as I was just giving away samples, I didn't have to prepare them in a licensed kitchen. The busybody insisted that I was incorrect, adding, "Cheese should be licensed." Seriously. Those are the words that came out of her mouth. Cheese should be licensed. Had I not been so upset by the situation, I would have laughed at the absurdity of her statement. Then she mentioned that what I was doing, teaching people to make dairy products at home, was in competition with her own business. Ah-ha, now we get to the heart of the matter. Empowering people to prepare food with their own hands might get in the way of commerce.

The market manager saw us talking and approached to find out what was going on. Not knowing herself whether offering homemade samples was in compliance with ODA regulations or not, she quickly convened the market's board and it was decided that no, I could not allow anyone to taste the food that I had made in my unlicensed home kitchen. I fully understand their decision and the last thing I would want to do is create a situation that would harm the market, so I agreed to go ahead with the demo, but not offer samples of my homemade delectables. Fortunately, the demo went well and afterward a number of people told me they felt inspired to start making their own cheese and such at home. Mission accomplished. Nevertheless situation pained me because it seemed to call into question of my integrity and my ability to produce safe, wholesome food. This food I made at home, that I feed to my own children, was apparently unfit for public consumption, according to the ODA and others who feel that "cheese should be licensed."

In his talk, Salatin mentioned that during a recent conversation with Michaal Pollan, they discussed how it would be possible to find a compromise between what Salatin described as liberal democrats, who feel that food safety regulations are necessary, and libertarians, who find such regulations an infringement upon their freedom. They came up with a scale, with a McDonald's meal at one end, and a meal consisting of of backyard-raised chicken and homegrown veggies at the other. Which meal should receive the most regulatory scrutiny, he asked. I hope, Dear Reader, that you would agree with Joel, Michael, and me, that the McDonald's meal, which travels across hundreds of miles and though dozens of hands, requires the greatest level of regulatory scrutiny, while regulators would leave dinner from "Aunt Mabel's backyard," as Salatin put it, alone. And while you may agree that a system that doesn't burden small producers, who are directly accountable to their customers, with costly regulations that stymy innovation and local food systems, surprisingly, many people in power feel that the opposite is true. Salatin said that he recently asked Virginia Senator Jim Webb what he thought about whether the McDonald's or Aunt Mabel's meal should be more regulated, and Webb responded that the backyard producer should undergo greater scrutiny.

And the sad fact is, there may be some of you out there reading this who are still convinced that the edible foodlike substances that the industrial food system belches out are somehow safer, thanks to USDA regulations and the like, than food grown and prepared by your neighbor. Many have become so fearful of food, real food, that is, that we ignore all the warnings about what's wrong with the system. Swine flu, BCE, salmonella, algal bloom, diabetes, obesity, heart disease...the list of signs that all is not well with our industrial food system goes on and on. Yet, we fear that canning our own food at home will put us at risk for botulism, when in fact, since the 1970s, there have been on average only about 24 cases of foodborne botulism per year and a large percentage of those cases involve food prepared in factories and restaurants. Thanks to a time in US history when urban dairy cows being fed an unhealthy diet of distillery waste produced milk that was unfit for human consumption in its raw state, many people, disconnected from farms producing clean, wholesome milk from pastured cows, came to accept that the only safe milk is pasteurized milk. Yet people have consumed raw milk and made all sorts of products from milk at home for thousands of years. How did we, in a historical blink of an eye, forget that? How have we come to the point at which someone could say with a straight face that cheese should be licensed?

I could just go on and on (obviously), but it's time I get to bed so I can get up early and can some food in my unlicensed kitchen. Don't worry, I won't sell any to my neighbors. I just have one last thing to say: Cheese should not be licensed. Make it yourselves. If not cheese, try canning, drying, freezing, or fermenting some of the summer's bounty. In his talk tonight, Salatin challenged us to develop the skills we need to fill our pantries with more food without barcodes than with them. What a great notion.

This is my first Fight Back Friday post. Be sure to check out what other Real Food bloggers have to say today. Thank you Kristin for hosting and for your terrific post about how rampant imitation foods are in our culture.


  1. Chris--Loved your "rant"!
    What scares me the most are the little militants like the lady who approached you at the market. We don't even need the big guys, the official scrutinizers from the FDA or elsewhere, because these people have taken it upon themselves to police everyone who doesn't comply with their skewed view of fairness. SHE went through the hoops, so now she's gonna make sure EVERYONE has to. I hope you keep on doing what you're doing---I know I'm not giving up the fight just yet. :)

  2. Fabulous and inspiring post! It's a PERFECT fit for Fight Back Fridays. Thank you so much for sharing it in today's carnival.

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  3. Today is my first Fight Back Friday post too! I'm a big fan of Salatin, as well, and would love to hear him speak in person sometime.

    I am in the same boat as you with the cheese. I've been making my own dairy products for seven years, and about six years ago, I called the state about selling my cheese. I explained that I was only milking two goats and would only be selling about five to ten pounds a week, and she said I had to be licensed, because "We believe all the citizens of Illinois should have access to safe food."

    A couple years ago, I decided to try again since we now milk about 10 goats, so maybe I could afford getting licensed. After hearing about the $15,000 pasteurizer, state-approved labels, etc., I gave up again. Now we just make as much as we can for ourselves (chevre, cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan, yogurt, buttermilk, ricotta, queso blanco) and give the excess to the pigs and chickens -- while some people in this country don't have enough to eat. But even soup kitchens won't take unlicensed food.

    Hope you'll stop by at Antiquity Oaks for a Cybervisit!

  4. Well said, Chris! I couldn't agree more. The unfortunate truth about government regulation is it has to account for the least common denominator, that is, it has to hold someone like you to the same standards as, say, some joe who lets his pet rat wander his kitchen but wants to sell you his cheese as well. Blegh. Unfortunately, we all suffer for the lack of differentiation. It will be a fine day when someone like you can easily get a basic certification of cleanliness without having to jump through the same expensive hoops as the big producers.

  5. Although I agree 100% with your post, it's the big businesses who will find loopholes so they can pass off their factory produced "food" without getting safety checks. They're already running roughshod over the organic process, and buying up all the smaller producers. I could see the same happening with this issue. It's frustrating.

  6. D.A., the regulations that would prevent consolidation of business are anti-trust laws, which are basically NOT enforced by the FTC, the Justice Dept. and state's attoerneys general. Monopolies and food safety, while somewhat related, are two different regulatory beasts.

    Big business runs roughshod over pretty much everything, largely because big business owns big government and therefore dictates how it is regulated. Big business comes up with ideas like installing networked video monitors at slaughter houses that would allow some centralized alert center to watch for abuses. Nice idea in theory, but what if you just want to slaughter 50 chickens in your backyard and sell them to your friends? And you invite them over to watch--to be a LIVING AND BREATHING networked monitoring system?

    The point of the McDonald vs. Aunt Mabel meal is that regulations should account for scale. Oftentimes, they don't, and in fact, have a disproportionately negative effect on small producers and give big ones a free ride. The NAIS (Nat'l Animal Inspection System), for example, would require backyard chicken keepers to microchip every single chicken, report to the gov't if a chicken was lost or slaughtered, and more, all in the name of food safety. Costly and burdensome for a small-time operator or hobbyist. BUT, instead of tightly regulating CAFOs, where the true animal food safety issues lie, large producers will be given a pass--only having to identify groups of animals! Swine flu started in a CAFO, but my backyard chickens, which free-range outdoors all day, eating their natural diet of bugs and greens are a threat to public health?

    Smaller producers, who are directly accountable to their customers and operate transparently (that is, as my customer, you can come visit my farm or kitchen whenever), should not be subject to the same regulations as large producers, because customers act in a regulatory capacity themselves.

    I know that before government regulated food and drugs in the US, there were a lot of unscrupulous people who sold adulterated, mislabeled, ineffective and/or poisonous products. I read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. So did a lot of people in 1906--and so many were sickened by what they learned that meat sales dropped 50% that year! The meat industry ASKED for regulation then, to help the public feel that their food was safe. A hundred years later, though, we have salmonella, Swine Flu, Mad Cow, etc., all thanks to inhumane, unnatural husbandry and slaughtering practices. We need to stop these practices...which may mean that Americans might need to eat less meat. But they could be eating much higher quality meat, enjoying a higher quality of life, and know that the animals that provide them with sustenance enjoyed a higher quality of life, too.

  7. Hi Chris,

    Loved your post. I have bought "organic" food for years, but only recently come to the "live" food side of things. In trying to find "live" food, I have discovered how precious, scarce, and restricted it is. You are an inspiration to me. I'm sorry that the people at the farmer's market weren't able to try your creations. It does seem like the people who have already accepted a restriction/imposition are the most ready to make sure everyone else has to live with it, too. It's hard for people to watch others enjoy freedoms that they don't have. Or maybe they feel safer with less freedom. "Just to be safe..." like the leaders of the farmer's market...and then no one gets to try the cheese! There's safe, and there's dead, like the boiled milk that used to make my kids sick. Why do people feel "safer" with dead, restricted food? But, I guess I did at one time, too. We live and learn, and I am learning to make cheese! So I guess it's all good. Power to the people in all their own little kitchens, pressing and enjoying their very own cheese!In a way, all the restrictions are inviting people to find their power again.

    So, there's a mini-rant inspired by yours. I'll have to tune in again next week, for sure. :)
    Sarah S

  8. Chris - excellent post! Thank you so much for posting it! I don't know about you - but I find myself in a bit of a quandry. Here we live in this amazing beautiful place with a designation as the most green city, and really with some great things that are not even possible in other locations - but then we get slapped in the face with stupid stuff like what you encountered at the Farmer's Market.

    So what I want to know, tho - since I know we're nearly neighbors (I know you from the Chicken Yahoo Group) - are you able to find raw milk? And if so - where?!

  9. Sarah, you're so right...it does seem that people who have accepted restrictions, impositions, regulations don't like to see people who refuse to comply.

    Dina, I have seen my share of Portland's not-so green, fair, and live-and-let-live side (see my neglected Reluctant Lactivist blog for my most offensive run-in with the "anti-Portand": http://reluctantlactivist.blogspot.com/2006/04/wtf.html), so while the incident certainly irked me, it didn't surprise me.

    I am in a raw milk co-op and know of a couple others. Email me off list (chris at lostartskitchen dot com) and I'll send you details. Also, you can get raw goat milk from Fern's Edge Dairy at People's. Why goat milk can be sold raw and not cow milk, I do not understand. It makes terrific chevre, though!