Circuit Court Ruling Puts Raw Milk Cheesemaker Out of Business

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The Cheese House at Morningland of the Ozarks is no more.
​The battle over raw-milk cheese has come home to Missouri. On Tuesday the Howell County Circuit Court upheld a ruling by the Missouri State Milk Board that Morningland of the Ozarks, a dairy in Mountain View, would have to destroy all the raw-milk cheeses it produced between January and June 2010, when traces of two bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes and Staphylococcus aureus, were found in samples taken from a store in California.

The decision effectively spells the end of the road for Morningland.

"Morningland had been in business for 30 years," says Doreen Hannes, a spokeswoman for the dairy. "In that time, zero incidents of people getting sick from their raw-milk cheese have been reported, or even rumored."

The longstanding debate over raw-milk cheese basically comes down to this: Most dairy products are boiled to kill off harmful bacteria, a process called pasteurization. Many cheesemakers maintain the process obliterates the individual flavor of the milk, the product of unique variables such as geography, diet and the cows themselves. It's the dairy equivalent of a wine's terroir, if you will.

Raw-milk cheeses are made with unpasteurized milk. Connoisseurs firmly believe they taste better.

In order to make sure all the bacteria is dead, the FDA requires that raw-milk cheeses spend 60 days aging before they can be sold. But now the FDA has decided that the 60-day rule has no scientific basis and is rethinking the whole thing. Cheesemakers worry that raw-milk cheeses will be banned altogether or that the aging minimum will be raised to 90 days, which would essentially mean that some cheeses would simply cease to exist.

The FDA isn't conducting a mere thought experiment here. Last year 46 people contracted E. coli from eating raw-milk cheeses from two separate sources. (Neither outbreak involved Morningland.)

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The cheese of contention.
​The FDA contends that the two bacteria found in the Morningland cheeses are potentially harmful. Listeria monocytogenes causes serious infections and is particularly dangerous to pregnant women. Staphylococcus aureus can lead to food poisoning.

But Hannes says that's only half the story.

"There are eighteen different subtypes of listeria," she explains. "They're present in 75 percent of the environment. A few of those subtypes in certain amounts can be pathogenic. But the FDA has a zero-tolerance policy toward listeria. It doesn't matter what subtype it is, and it doesn't matter what the quantity is.

"Staphylococcus aureus is everywhere," Hannes continues. "Period. But the last time there was an illness in the United States associated with Staphylococcus aureus was in 1989."

Hannes believes the varieties of bacteria found in the Morningland cheeses were of the nontoxic variety, based on the fact that nobody got sick from eating them. "But," she points out, "there doesn't need to be a burden of proof for a regulatory agency."

As soon as the Missouri Department of Agriculture announced in August that it was investigating Morningland's cheese, the dairy's owners, Joseph and Denise Dixon, voluntarily issued a recall and kept the cheese under embargo, hoping they'd be able to sell it later.

It was not to be. In October the FDA sent a letter to Denise Dixon, informing her that the recalled cheese represented "an acute, life-threatening hazard to health." The Missouri State Milk Board declared that the cheese must be destroyed and that members of the board would "assist" the Dixons in taking it to a landfill.

This was no mere wheel of cheese. The Dixons estimate that they recalled about 50,000 pounds, valued at $250,000.

"Morningland has been producing raw aged cheese for 30 years, and in that time, absolutely no reports of illness have been made by anyone who has consumed our product," Denise Dixon said in a statement at the time. "We are, and remain, wholly committed to providing good, healthful food to our customers. The order to destroy 50,000 or so pounds of our cheese is not associated with even one complaint of illness, and we believe it's an over-reaction at best."

The Dixons requested that the milk board conduct an inspection before they carried out the destruction order. The board refused, and the case went to court. The Dixons lost, though they continue to maintain that no one has ever been harmed by eating their cheese.

Morningland is out of the cheese business for good. Joseph Dixon has taken a job out of state as an electrician, his job before he and Denise bought the dairy four years ago. Morningland continues to produce milk, which it sells to commercial groceries. After figuring in costs, the dairy earns about $15 per 100 gallons, barely enough to sustain itself.

"The FDA wants to stop raw dairy," Hannes says bluntly. "The head of its plant and dairy division, John Sheehan, testified in a hearing on allowing raw milk to be sold in Maryland that raw dairy is inherently dangerous and should never be consumed by anyone under any circumstances."

No one from the American Cheese Society, a trade organization for artisan cheesemakers, was available for comment when Gut Check gave them a ring, but in a public statement on safe cheesemaking issued last November the group asserted that "[c]heese is routinely produced safely from raw milk and from pasteurized milk." The society also encourages its members to follow food-safety guidelines and comply with regulatory standards.

But its chairman, David Gremmels, who co-owns of the Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon, spoke to the New York Times last month.

"Raw milk cheese is here to stay," he said. "It's vital that we all accept milk testing, environmental testing and product testing to assure that the cheeses in distribution are safe."


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20 comments
Raw milk drinker
Raw milk drinker

I have eaten Morningland Dairy cheese for years.

From what I read, the testing wasn't done properly but they still want to destroy the cheese (and effectively their business.) No one has ever gotten sick from their cheese, but since samples that were not taken care of properly were suspect, they are going after them.

People should be able to buy raw milk cheese if they so desire...the government needs to become smaller, not getting into more and more of our business.

T.Lisa
T.Lisa

Unbelievable that this injustice can happen here in America. I am very sad to hear about how this has unfolded.

Ceebee54
Ceebee54

I don't know what to say; I'm so sorry and I HATE that they are preventing you from making cheese. Can they do that? I mean what if you just started all over again? Shit, new equipment new location or something? How can they just forbid you to ever make raw milk cheese again? That feels so illegal!I'm so sorry. If I ever see your products again, I will absolutely buy them. I live in Plano, Texas and there are several "Whole Foods Markets" and "Central Market"s around here. Any where we travel, I will always buy your products. God, my whole large, extended family was raised on raw milk!I love you, CBThayer

Tim_young3
Tim_young3

This is just another example of govermentel tyranny

Gypsyrose
Gypsyrose

This ruling is another example of how the justice system in this country has been compromised. Not only is it extremely expensive to fight a government edict, but the decisions usually favor the government no matter how unConstitutional their conduct is. This family has been run through the ringer and hung out to dry as an example of government power over those who dare to challenge them.

MikeB
MikeB

The judge and the Missouri Milk Board are bending over backwards to please somebody, and it's not the citizens, to be sure. There are many issues not even addressed in this article, such as our right to decide what we eat. I, for one, do not want judges and bureaucrats deciding what I can eat and what I am not permitted to eat. Their interests and beliefs seem to be much different than mine.Taste is only a small part of the difference between raw and pasteurized. Raw is real food, pasteurized is slow poison.

Itsfarmfresh
Itsfarmfresh

This is absurd. The cheese has not been tested correctly and everyone is freaking about it.Simple: test the cheese before throwing it out. The big arm of the FDA is swinging, chopping off heads; innocents included.I fear it shall get worse. Picking on small farmers and making them go under is one more step to making all our foods factory-produced. Bah!

Aed939
Aed939

I feel so much safer. Americans should only eat Kraft cheese.

SteveM
SteveM

The statement "But the last time there was an illness in the United States associated with Staphylococcus aureus was in 1989" is 100% wrong. Look up MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a nasty S. aureus that is resistant to many antibiotics) and you will find that S. aureus has caused many human illnesses in the last 20 years. If she is talking about food borne illnesses, which is not entirely clear the way the article is written, she may be right (I do not have easy access to that type of data, so I cannot confirm or deny it). Otherwise she is, at best, misinformed.

Julie
Julie

what's up with Greenwood Farms?Bookmeyers, Munos, the new sheep cheese producer?To totally wipe out Morningland Dairy is rough for MO cheesemakers & eaters....I'm sure that I consumed some of their cheddar last year...

Pby7731
Pby7731

right on, this is exactly what it is about!freedom of choice.

Phall777
Phall777

The most potent weapon against tryanny is to never never never give up. It is their demise.

Pby7731
Pby7731

youre crazy.how do you thiink everyone ate before all these big companies went in business?where i am from, almost everyone lived off fresh foods they raised.they didnt go to town for milk and cheese, there wasnt walmart.they lived off what they raised.this is a issue of the govt. taking over small farms and business'.i would rather have the option of buying products from a small business that directly benefits the local economy than buy factory products that alot of times hire illegal aliens and are found in big box stores like Walmart.America would have never survived without people like this that fed their families and neighbors before kraft ever came along.

Phall777
Phall777

what planet are you from?

TommyRoe2
TommyRoe2

Oh my. Of course she was talking about a foodborne illness when it comes to Staph. Hell, everytime someone cuts themselves, they are prone to Staph infections. Staph resides on the skin of a majority of human beings.

In addition, a staph infection is different than staph poisoning as a foodborne illness. I really wonder who is the one misinformed.

Henwhisperer
Henwhisperer

The whole article is about how there has been no food-borne illnesses associated with Morningland Dairy cheeses. MRSA is something else entirely, and more than proof positive that people should stay away from hospitals.

SteveM
SteveM

In my opinion, the quote is at best unclear (or the way the quote is presented is unclear), and that was the point of my post. If the author would have written "in regard to food borne illness, there has been no human illnesses", I would likely have been fine with that statement. The quote, as presented, is just scientifically wrong.

Also, MRSA is not something else entirely, it is a substrain or subspecies of S. aureus that has acquired resistance to many antibiotics. MRSA is almost as common as S. aureus in the population. Hospitals (immunocompromised patients) and locker rooms (many cuts, scrapes, etc) are the most common places to catch it though, so everyone should thoroughly wash any open wounds. It is not clear if the S. aureus found in the cheese has been tested for MRSA (or other pathogenic forms), but knowing how things work, I would bet not.

All that said, I am sorry that these people were basically put out of business.

TommyRoe2
TommyRoe2

Though, I agree that MRSA has spread well beyond the hospitals and into the community, but to say it is "almost" as common as the typical S. aureus found on the skin of humans is a stretch.

At the end of the day, our food system, as regulated by our governmental agencies, is truly a broken system that favors large Agribusiness companies that can absorb a recall easily with hardly a mark made on the bottomline. Staph, as a toxicant, is certainly a concern, but is it any greater than the Salmonella and Campylobacter found on chickens? Why is that acceptable and the Staph is not?

Why is it okay for large beef companies to send ground product to school lunch programs that fast food operators have rejected? Why are floor beef trimmings in a slaugther house allowed to be collected, processed and then ammoniated to become part of a burger sold either at retail or to school lunch programs?

Those are the real issues. Corporate America is eating us up and spitting out the remains in an incredibly unsustainable way. It is difficult for consumers to ever look beyond price especially in these days of economic difficulty. At the end of the day, allowing small successful businesses to go belly up just creates greater challenges for small communities.

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