Posted: 10/04/2019

Scottish cheesemakers taking FSS to court over new raw milk tests

Production of raw milk cheeses in Scotland, including those from Errington and Cambus O’May, could become “unviable” under new guidance 

Legal action launched by five Scottish cheesemakers to fight the latest government guidance on unpasteurised cheese production could be the first of many such cases, according to some in the industry, as cheesemakers fall foul of new food safety testing techniques.

The raw milk cheesemakers – Errington Cheese, Isle of Mull Cheese, Galloway Farmhouse Cheese, Cambus O’May and Finlay’s Farm – crowdfunded over £15,000 last month to pay for a judicial review into the legality of new guidance on raw milk cheese production from Food Standards Scotland (FSS).

The producers said the guidance, introduced in December, was contrary to EU standards and would “effectively make raw milk cheese production in Scotland unviable”. 

The case comes after a long legal dispute between FSS and Errington in which the cheesemaker was blamed for an E-coli 0157 outbreak in 2016, but was then cleared of breaching food safety laws in court.

Under the new guidance, raw milk cheesemakers must be able to control all types of Shiga Toxin E-coli (STEC) in their cheese. This covers a large group of different STEC bacteria, some of which are pathogenic, while others are not. Cheesemakers often test for harmful E-coli 0157, but there are few UK laboratories able to test for all types of STEC. “There’s the Catch 22,” said Wilma Finlay, co-owner of Finlay’s, which trades as the Ethical Dairy. “We need to eliminate all STEC but we can’t even test for them to know if we’ve got them.”

These kinds of disagreement could become more common as new testing techniques are introduced, according to dairy consultant Paul Thomas. He said 10-30% of raw milk cheeses show up as being STEC positive using the DNA testing technique Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). 

“There is a move towards PCR methods because they’re more rapid and more sensitive,” he said. “We’re seeing them used more in France, Germany and Ireland. It is possible that we may see more cases of enforcement action on the back of this kind of testing in the long term. There has been some debate around the interpretation of results, which are going to be difficult to crack.”

As FFD went to press, the Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association (SCA) and FSS had met to discuss possible changes to the guidance, but the Scottish cheesemakers who were present at that meeting had not been reassured and so were continuing their legal action.

This story appeared in the April issue of Fine Food Digest. You can read more on the digital edition here.

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