The two-hour meeting appropriately held in a church hall was an eye-opening, infuriating, and hopeful call to action.
Six people including three members of the committee spoke about the current situation at length, detailing the lack of oversight by Food Standards Scotlands (or FSS, the Scottish FDA equivalent) and a possible bias towards Errington Cheese and raw-milk products alike.
For those of you outside of Scotland/UK or don’t know about this case, after an E. coli outbreak occurred last July, FSS placed full blame on Errington Cheese and specifically their Dunsyre Blue, despite independent testing that showed no link to the sicknesses— I will go into much more detail about this below.
The first speaker, Wendy Barrie, Director of the Scottish Food Guide and Scottish Cheese Trail, discussed the world of artisan cheese, illustrating the time, passion, skill, and knowledge required to make raw-milk cheese. She pointed out that hygiene is of the utmost importance, not only because health and safety are paramount, but because if levels of the wrong types of bacteria are high, the cheese just won’t taste good.
Humphrey Errington of Errington Cheese then spoke, first with an update that they had won a judgment against the South Lanarkshire Council, their local government. The judge ruled that the council had illegally seized their cheese, and it could return to market, but allowed a week for the local authority to pursue alternative action. The alternative action taken yesterday was a legal seizure (due to I believe the UK Food Safety Act of 1990) of more of their blue cheese. Mr. Errington expressed his desire for this seizure to happen so that the council and FSS would hopefully test the cheese for E. coli and other bacteria.
This current chain of events is not the first time Errington has had to fight for his cheese. In 1994, a listeria outbreak forced them to close and go to court to win a judgment against Scottish governmental authorities.
He expressed his disappointment towards FSS and strongly believes the agency is “prejudiced against raw milk cheese.”
And as a result of the current £80,000 (and rising) series of court battles, the Erringtons have had to fire staff, sending many of these highly skilled workers to employment in the local supermarkets.
After Mr. Errington spoke, his wife and others passed around leak and Dunsyre Blue (the cheese at the center of this battle) cheese tarts for us to taste at our own ‘risk.’ Without pause, every single person in that room happily ate one (or two) of these delicious tarts.
Microbiologists Dr. Colin Fink and Dr. Ronan Calvez, from Micropathology Ltd, an independent lab that tests for infectious diseases and host responses to infection, spoke more in depth about the E. coli strain, 0157 and informed us that currently there is no lab established in the UK that can adequately analyze for this bacteria. The independent lab testing that was done and proves the innocence of Errington Cheese was conducted at a French lab that specializes in the testing of dairy.
E. coli 0157 was the cause of the outbreak resulting in the sickness of 20 and hospitalization of 11 people, as well as the tragic death of a 3-year-old child.
Most people would question why anyone would think that a child would be fed and willingly eat raw-milk blue cheese. Dr. Fink also pointed this out stating “Would you give a strong blue cheese to a three-year-old child?” I don’t know about you, but the only cheese I consumed at the age of three was in the form of a highly-processed stick.
Also, this E. coli has never been found in ewe’s (sheep) milk, the kind used to make these blue cheeses.
One would also think that with such a heartbreaking loss, no stone would be left unturned in the investigation to find the source of the outbreak, but much to our astonishment, this was not done at all.
The agency at the center of this current action, Food Standards Scotland, was only formed in 2015 after splitting with the England-based Food Standards Agency (a seemingly more raw-milk friendly firm down south), to specifically focus on food produced in Scotland. No one currently employed by FSS holds a graduate degree or doctorate in microbiology, so a clear, deep and necessary understanding of bacteria is desperately lacking, something crucial when monitoring the safety of food, particularly cheese.
Despite the agency’s assertion that the cheese was “implicated based on epidemiological evidence,” and that this evidence proves that the cheese is the culprit in the outbreak, requests to have this evidence examined by the Erringtons and ultimately, in a court of law has been completely ignored. Even more outrageous, FSS failed to investigate any vehicles the cheese was transported in, caterers that served the cheese, as well as looking into any other foods that may have been contaminated. In one of the cases, a victim ate the blue cheese melted on top of a beef burger, a food product that is rife with potentially harmful bacteria.
Other speakers included Pamela Brunton, chef and co-owner of Inver Restaurant in the small hamlet of Strathclanan, out west in Argyll & Bute, passionately spoke about the importance of the relationship of those in hospitality with local food producers and artisans, particularly in smaller rural areas where it is key for survival.
Joanna Blythman, Scottish food journalist and author, as well as the force behind the creation of the CDAF, closed the meeting echoing the sentiments of the speakers before her on the unjust and “political witchhunt” against Errington Cheese.
Many other artisan producers wanted to attend but feared the same fate; one of these producers even stated that if they were put in the same situation as the Erringtons, they would be completely ruined and forced to close up shop.
If you would like to help the Erringtons with their mounting legal costs, donate here here.
Pardon the lack of updates on MSc Gastronomy goings on (a post on the past two weeks of class will be posted shortly), but I felt this matter was far too important to lump in with my usual roundup.