Food safety of artisan cheese in Ontario

There have been a couple notable outbreaks associated with cheese in Canada in the past: Gort's Gouda had the recent (and well-publicized) outbreak of E. coli, 2002 and 2008 both had outbreaks of Listeria associated with both raw and pasteurized cheese products, and 1998 had a nation-wide Salmonella outbreak which was traced back to cheese found in commercially-available lunch packs. For the most part, commercially-produced cheese items are quite safe. They're made with pasteurized milk products, and undergo processing that's well-studied and well-documented. In B.C., the B.C. Centre for Disease Control has dairy specialists on-staff who routinely inspect cheese plants for best practices and adherence to policies and guidelines.

There is also a growing movement for "local" and "artisan" products, which include cheeses. To determine the perceptions around food safety and attitudes about "food safety management programs" in cheese making, a group of researchers from the University of Guelph in Ontario put together an interview for artisan cheesemakers in the area. Their sample size was pretty small (of 50 cheesemakers that were identified, they were only able to get 11 to agree to participate, and of those, only 6 would let their employees speak with the researchers), but the interview questions were based on recommendations from existing research and incorporated a "Risk Assessment Framework".

Using private, anonymous telephone interviews, the researchers spent approximately 30 minutes speaking with each of the employees and managers from the cheese companies. While they found that nearly all of the respondents were aware of biological risks to food safety in cheese manufacturing, most perceived chemical and physical hazards as a low concern. Of all potentially hazardous biological agents, Listeria was named as the main one, due to its ability to multiply at fridge temperatures, its prevalence in raw milk, and because of awareness from past outbreaks. Interestingly, more than half of the respondents were proponents of using raw milk in cheese manufacturing because of the perceived increase in product quality, customer demand, and the ability of European countries to do so safely.

In terms of risk assessment and mitigation, all respondents were aware of their individual company's biosecurity policies and procedures (such as putting on clean boots before entering the facility), and typical sanitation regimes. However, more than half of those interviewed expressed concerns with the cost of these risk management programs, including the cost of having workers performing "excessive documentation" rather than being on the production floor making cheese. The respondents also spoke to the cost of formal education around best practices and food safety, but realized the value of these education programs, and felt that the cost was outweighed by the benefits they provide. When asked about risk communication, several of those interviewed stated that they didn't think the public was concerned about the safety of their cheese, and that they cared more about "cheese quality".

While the results of this study show that most of those interviewed recognize bacteriological concerns in cheese manufacturing, it also showed that there is still the need for further education around chemical and physical contaminants. Further, while the respondents valued formal food safety education, they felt that HACCP programs took too much time and weren't efficient, especially in small cheese manufacturing plants where there were fewer person-hours of work to go around. There is also a recognized lack of knowledge and commitment to risk communication, with producers thinking that their consumers care more about the quality of the product than its safety.

Since this study looked at such a small subset of the food manufacturing industry (a small number of cheese manufacturers in a geographically small part of Canada), it's hard to say how indicative these results might be of the food processing industry as a whole. However, it certainly highlights how media attention to a specific area of concern (Listeria) can ensure widespread knowledge.

Source: Le, S., Bazger, W., Hill, A.R., & Wilcock, A. (2014). Awareness and perceptions of food safety of artisan cheese makers in Southwestern Ontario: a qualitative study. Food Control, 41, 158-167.

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