By Lucas Witman
In an announcement that shocked many in the American specialty cheese community, Andy Hatch, co-owner and head cheesemaker at Wisconsin’s Uplands Cheese Co., recently sent an email to cheesemongers and distributors stating that his company would not be producing its celebrated Rush Creek Reserve for at least the duration of the year. Rush Creek Reserve is a soft-ripened raw cow’s milk cheese inspired by the French cheese Vacherin Mont d’Or. The company’s decision not to move forward with production of the cheese comes amid the FDA’s ongoing vacillation over the safety of raw milk cheeses. Although Rush Creek Reserve’s 60-day aging period fits within current federal guidelines for the safe production of raw milk cheeses, the FDA has made it clear that it is considering revising this rule and requiring a longer aging period. In exiting the market before this potential rule change goes into effect, Rush Creek Reserve has become what could be the first of many casualties in an emerging battle over American-produced raw milk cheeses.
“Is there a way that we can be more focused and maybe get a lobbyist group to help really push the sort of cheese agenda in Washington and really make changes,” asked Steve Gellert, World’s Best Cheeses’ Vice President of Business Development, at the recent American Cheese Society Conference. “I think a lot of people … want to see the changes happen, they just don’t know what to do about it other than bumper stickers.” As specialty cheese companies like Uplands Cheese Co. face the negative implications of government policies that they openly disagree with, affected parties are asking if there is more that they can be doing to directly influence those policies and work with federal officials to create a regulatory environment that protects their industry as well as the health and safety of the American consumer.
Many individuals within the larger specialty food landscape are already actively involved in lobbying legislators and regulators and advocating for public policy changes on the state and federal level. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the food and beverage industry spent over $30 million on lobbying in 2013 and directly employed 329 lobbyists. The top spenders included Coca Cola ($5.9 million) and PepsiCo ($3.7 million), but a number of industry trade groups, including the National Restaurant Association, the American Beverage Association and the International Foodservice Distributors Association also do their part to influence public policy.
In recent years, a number of food industry trade groups have demonstrated the power that their industry can exert on public policy. The American Meat Institute, for example, has been influential in shaping the USDA’s requirements regarding how meat is labeled for sale in this country. And the Grocery Manufacturers Association has been a key voice in ongoing public discussions over how best to eliminate childhood obesity, serving as an industry partner for First Lady Michele Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign. Food industry lobbying and public policy advocacy groups have been instrumental in shaping everything from GMO-related legislation to government subsidies and import tariffs.
A relatively new lobbying and public advocacy organization, the American Olive Oil Producers Association was founded less than two years ago. In that short time, the organization has become an important tool in protecting the interests of U.S.-based olive oil producers at home and abroad. Already in its short life span, the AOOPA was able to work with U.S. Rep. David Camp of the House Ways and Means Committee to launch an official investigation into the domestic olive oil industry. That investigation resulted in an independent government report that came out in August 2013 that discusses those issues in detail.
“We’ve been making great strides working with our government and recognizing the challenges that face our industry,” said Kimberly Houlding, Executive Director of the AOOPA. “We want to make sure that we have a fair and honest market.”
The cheese industry itself is not a stranger to public policy advocacy. Established in 2000, and recently re-launched, the non-profit Cheese of Choice Coalition has been an important resource in advocating for the rights of American consumers to purchase and consume raw milk cheeses. After the FDA proposed changes in 1999 to its regulations concerning the production of raw milk cheeses, the Cheese of Choice Coalition stepped in as a voice for the industry, and it was an important player in protecting raw milk cheeses from effectively being abolished during that time.
“The point of the organization was to allow consumers to still choose their cheese, because there was a threat to change the aging time for raw milk cheeses,” said Sara Baer-Sinnott, President of Oldways, parent organization of the Cheese of Choice Coalition. “[We] support the production of artisan, traditional and raw milk cheeses and we do this through education, alliance, advocacy, consumer outreach and community engagement.”
Those who support organizing as an industry in order to advance the interests of specialty food in Washington argue that this type of coalition-building is necessary to collectively establish shared interests and to serve as a unified voice in advancing those interests. “If there is not an industry voice – one unified voice to speak to elected officials – there is going to be someone else filling that voice,” said Houlding. “In our case, that was importers and foreign producers … In many cases we do not have the same views as importers and foreign producers.”
In addition to serving as a unified voice of an industry, the AOOPA and other specialty food interest groups also have an important role to play in protecting the interests of consumers. “Consumers deserve an honestly labeled product. We need to provide them the assurance that they are receiving an honestly labeled product,” said Houlding.
The Cheese of Choice Coalition similarly serves as an advocate for consumers. Brad Jones, Program Manager for the Cheese of Choice Coalition worries what would happen if consumers suddenly lost access to the products they love. “Let the consumers have the right to purchase, consume and enjoy that cheese,” he said.
In addition, as many specialty food professionals strive to approach their industry scientifically, developing fact-based approaches to food production and food safety, these individuals are at the same time looking for ways to communicate the scientific data they have developed to those who have the power to effect change. The formation of a lobbying or special interest group can be of service to this goal as well.
“We focus on bringing science-based information to consumers and to policy makers, taking complicated material and making it understandable for consumers and bringing the experts together with policy makers,” said Baer-Sinnott.
When it comes to specialty cheese in particular, those critical of forming a dedicated lobbying or public policy interest group argue that resources are scarce, and those resources are perhaps better spent on developing new products and getting them to consumers. Houlding, however, argues that for her organization, money spent has been worthwhile. “I think it’s an important use of resources, and certainly from an olive oil perspective and how our market is structured, if you don’t have a voice in Washington and you’re not working to educate your elected officials regarding challenges your industry may face … somebody is going to fill that void,” she said. “There’s something to be gained in creating relationships with the federal government … If you have somebody in Washington or at least you’re speaking as a unified industry voice, maybe you can get ahead of some of those issues and prevent some of those things.”
With FDA officials announcing at the recent ACS Conference a commitment to working with the specialty cheese industry as it moves toward developing new industry-specific regulations, industry representatives are now contemplating how best to pursue this ongoing dialogue. This is a question that is particularly important to the Cheese of Choice Coalition. “I think looking back 14 or 15 years and comparing it to today, there is more dialogue,” said Baer-Sinnott. “It’s a very hopeful thing, and that puts the Cheese of Choice Coalition and other organizations … in a position where it’s really possible to make a difference.”
This story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Gourmet News, a publication of Oser Communications Group.