Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Estrella Family Creamery

I recently talked with Anthony Estrella of the Estrella Family Creamery.

If you look at their website, you might think they are still making their international award-winning cheese. In truth, they aren't. I'm aware of what happened to them because for the last few months, I've been worried for them. I've been calling them and getting updates.

Anthony explained to me that they aren't making food anymore.* Basically, if you make food, you have to deal with the FDA, USDA or WSDA. In the case of the Estrellas, they ran into trouble with the FDA over food safety, and those problems destroyed them financially and drove them out of the food business.

It is very unfortunate. In a very short period of time, the Estrellas acquired cattle with optimal genetics for cheese making, established their cheese operation, made a bunch of international award-winning cheeses and then got shut down by the government due to food safety issues.

The fact that they won awards in London really impressed me; it means their cheese wasn't just better than American cheeses (which generally aren't the best in the world), but foreign cheese too.

The whole incident is very complicated. From talking to people and doing research, I know that I don't know what the perfect outcome would have been. Basically, if you look for listeria hard enough at any creamery, you'll probably find it. As a result of the government's actions, the Estrella's are ruined, and it isn't clear that our food system is any safer as a result.

The FDA makes their general attitude clear in this press release:

The first rule strengthens FDA’s ability to prevent potentially unsafe food from entering commerce. It allows the FDA to administratively detain food the agency believes has been produced under insanitary or unsafe conditions. Previously, the FDA’s ability to detain food products applied only when the agency had credible evidence that a food product presented was contaminated or mislabeled in a way that presented a threat of serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals.

Beginning July, the FDA will be able to detain food products that it has reason to believe are adulterated or misbranded for up to 30 days, if needed, to ensure they are kept out of the marketplace. The products will be kept out of the marketplace while the agency determines whether an enforcement action such as seizure or federal injunction against distribution of the product in commerce, is necessary.

Basically, they prioritize safety over everything.

When you consider that food is perishable, and that time is of the essence, it is clear that the FDA's bureaucrats can easily ruin food producers.

In general, what happened to the Estrellas reminds me of the tradeoffs inherent in our food regulation system. We have a very safe and cheap food supply. But most of our food doesn't taste very good. If you think America's "artisanal" food does taste great, you probably haven't traveled and sought out really great food.**

I'd rather live in a world where adults can choose to take their life in their hands and eat really good raw milk cheese from people like the Estrellas. But I'm also the sort of guy to drink moonshine and eat uninspected meat. It drives me nuts that you can get better tasting food in poor countries like Slovakia or Serbia than you can in the USA, the richest country on earth.

One of the reasons I founded Heath Putnam Farms is that it seemed like I couldn't be the only one bothered that the USA's pork products didn't measure up to what Hungary could produce and export to Asia.

Don't get me wrong - Hungarians are amazing, and punch way above their weight, especially in food. But shouldn't America be able to beat them on quality, if only because we have so much more money to throw at the problem, and a huge domestic market to support the consumption of good food?

I know a lot more now. Basically, Americans want cheap food. A lot of "foodies" like to eat something slightly better than mediocre and pat themselves on the back for it. There's a ridiculously small segment of the population that wants to eat really great stuff, and will do what it takes to get it.

* Anthony said they'll sell live animals to people. Those people will be responsible for turning the animals into food.

** I'm not trying to sound like a jerk. That's just my experience. I've had better tomatoes from Bosnia than I've ever had from California. Spain produces better almonds than California. Hungarian salami, made from "mangalica" pigs tastes better than all "artisanal" American salami I've had. "Factory farmed" Iberico pork tastes better than all non-Mangalitsa American pork, etc.


Anonymous said...

The Estrellas produced a tasty product in unsanitary conditions. Children don't get to choose. If adults want to take a chance for themselves, ok. Look at Sally Jackson for an example of what happens to public health when the producer is careless.
Randy Francisco

Heath Putnam said...

Randy Francisco -- I wouldn't feed cheese made by the Estrella's to kids.

I can think of two good reasons:

1) Food poisoning is more likely to hurt or kill kids than non-elderly adults.

2) Kids don't tend to appreciate really great food.