When news broke about a listeria outbreak tied to a New York-based artisan creamery earlier this spring, Maine’s growing community of artisan cheesemakers reacted with sadness and shock.
Then they got to work, according to Eric Rector of the Monroe Cheese Studio.
“Ever since the incident came up, we’ve been discussing it, including arranging for listeria testings and walk-through inspections,” the cheesemaker said. “We’re all concerned about making a safe product and a high-quality product. I think they go hand in hand. This incident has asked all cheesemakers to review our procedures and rethink ways to maybe do them better.”
It wasn’t initially clear if raw milk used by cheesemaker Johannes H. Vulto used to make his soft Ouleout cheese at Vulto Creamery in Walton, New York, was connected to the outbreak that resulted in the death of two people and hospitalization of four others, Rector said. However, a report recently released by the federal Food and Drug Administration connected the fatal outbreak with unsanitary conditions at Vulto Creamery. The cheesemaker had gotten his start by making cheese in his Brooklyn apartment and aging it under the sidewalk, but began producing cheese in his upstate creamery in 2012.
According to Food Safety News, federal inspectors documented violations that included:
– Vulto and an employee with visible cuts on his arms reaching deep into vats of cheese to separate curds with their bare hands and arms.
– Equipment and surfaces in the creamery that appeared to have a buildup of black and green mold.
– Insect strips overloaded with dead flies.
“We were quite concerned about what actually happened,” Walton said. “We have since learned it had nothing to do with the raw milk aspect of the cheese but it was conditions in the factory that proved his undoing … It certainly renewed our awareness of everybody needing to be as safe as possible in their practices.”
Records from the creamery showed that more than a quarter of swab tests done between July 2014 and February 2017 were positive for Listeria monocytogenes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this bacterium can cause Listeriosis, a serious infection that sickens an estimated 1,600 people and kills about 260 people every year. The infection usually is caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium. Pregnant women, newborn babies, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk. Symptoms of Listeriosis can include headache, fever, muscle aches, stiff neck, confusion and convulsions, according to the CDC.
What happened at Vulto isn’t the way things are supposed to, said Beth Calder, a food safety specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
“If they were getting hits, they should have been doing corrective action on their sanitation practice,” she said.
That’s what happens in Maine, according to the Pine Tree State’s cheesemakers, a fast-growing group. When Cathe Morrill bought the State of Maine Cheese Co. in Rockport in 1996, the company was among just eight licensed cheesemakers. Today, there are 80, with 20 more getting ready to come on board.
“I want to tell the story about how incredibly fabulous the cheese world is in Maine,” she said. “The most important thing is that all the cheesemakers want something to be done well. The thing I know is that we do it right. They didn’t [at Vulto]. We do.”
Part of doing things right happens thanks to the Maine Department of Agriculture, she said. In Maine, getting licensed means that a trained dairy inspector has toured the cheesemaking facility and approved its space, equipment and process as meeting state and federal regulations, according to the Maine Cheese Guild’s webpage. Every year, the Department of Agriculture sends the dairy inspector to look at all licensed cheesemaking facilities, provides two water tests to make sure that coliform is not found in the water supply (listeria is a coliform) and does 10 tests of the finished product.
The three state dairy inspectors are on the road five days a week all year round, Rector said, and pick up the cheese to be tested at the creamery and take it to the Maine milk lab where it is tested for bacterial contamination, Rector said. If there are higher than allowed levels of bacteria in the cheese, the inspector works with the dairy to find the contamination problem and solve it.
“When they’re testing our cheese, they’re not looking to shut us down,” Rector said. “They’re looking to have clean tests every time. When we don’t have clean tests, it means we need to review our processes and find the problem. Once we do, we can continue to make cheese and make Maine a better dairy state.”
Another contributing factor to Maine cheesemaking safety is the work of the Maine Cheese Guild. The guild, which works to support and encourage the Maine cheesemaking community, has co-sponsored a food and dairy safety workshop with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension every other year. It also holds monthly meetings at various creameries around the state, so cheesemakers can share ideas with each other.
“We elevate the craft,” Morrill, a board member, said. “We make sure everybody does it the right way.”
Doing it the right way starts at the beginning, with the milking process, and continues all the way through to the making and packing of the cheese. From the rubber inflations that wrap around a cow’s teat to the pipelines that milk is piped through in dairies and in creameries, there are lots of places where it is critical to keep clean to prevent bacterial contamination.
“There are a hundred ways you should be double-checking everything,” Rector said.
Before entering the State of Maine Cheese Co.’s gleaming processing facility, Morrill dips her shoes into a footbath and tucks her hair into a hat to prevent unwitting contamination.
“If you don’t get it right the first time, you won’t have a second chance,” she said of food safety.