Raw-milk cheese has been under scrutiny in recent years, as federal regulators have attempted to establish a safety standard for the commodity.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration launched a pilot program in January 2014 to do just that, but it has since plagued producers, importers, and retailers with a high number of samplings and holds on raw-milk cheese varieties produced domestically and abroad. Some in the industry have seen issues with these samplings in recent months, and many are beginning to question the program’s rules and effectiveness.

The FDA says it is using the program to learn more about how 60-day aged raw-milk cheese becomes contaminated with foodborne pathogens, and what patterns, if any, may help predict potential contamination in the future. The agency set out to collect 1,600 samples from American and foreign producers and, as of August, had collected 885. At this time, the collection and testing is slated for completion in January.

As a result of what some in the industry are seeing as ample sampling, importers and retailers have seen three- to five-week holds on imported cheeses, as well as practices that aren’t properly outlined and often changed, all with little communication from the FDA. These issues have meant holes in inventory and already-ripe cheese hitting the shelves during the industry’s busiest time of the year.

Repeat Sampling Agonizes Suppliers

One of the biggest problems may be redundancy in sampling, with the FDA continuously sampling the same types of cheeses from the same producers. Adam Moskowitz, general manager of specialty food importer Larkin, says he supports the agency and the work it is doing, but he is concerned by the lack of adequate explanation as to why certain cheeses that have tested clean continue to be sampled.

Paul Jeka, a representative for the Cheese Importers Association of America, echoes Moskowitz’s sentiment. “They’re sampling from well-respected, large importers and distributors of high-end raw milk cheeses that have a high retail value,” he says. “You’re getting a lot of duplication. … We feel like they’re not using the resources wisely.”

To that end, FDA spokesman Doug Karas says the agency is seeking to test a diverse range of imported products from different countries, processors, and cheese types. Karas also asserts that all sampling is meant to be random, and that there is no maximum level of re-sampling allowed on any particular cheese.

Slow Speeds Spoiling Cheese

For Emilio Mignucci, owner of Di Bruno Bros. gourmet grocery in Philadelphia, the unspecified hold times on his products have meant shorter turnarounds on cheeses that are already at their peak ripeness when they arrive at his store. Luckily for Mignucci, he has several stores among which he can transfer stock of certain products. “For us, because we buy so much on a regular basis, we’re not usually out of stock, so we can sustain for a week or two,” he says.

Receiving shipments of cheese at the tail end of their peak ripeness has been an issue for St. James Cheese Company in New Orleans. “You lose a week, or sometimes two weeks, for sampling,” explains Justin Trosclair, the store’s general manager, “and you get that cheese and you end up only having seven days to sell it.”

Trosclair says St. James has stopped ordering many types of raw-milk cheeses altogether since the FDA program has greatly affected which cheeses the shop can rely on having in its case.

While Karas says the FDA has no specific statutory or regulatory requirements for conducting tests within a set amount of time, he adds that the agency does try to be as expedient as possible.

“We are aware of and sensitive to the issues faced by importers when delays occur,” Karas explains. “Often delays in processing are the result of the volume of import entries that a particular district has to process for the ports of entry covered by that district.”

Consumer Confusion

Sheana Davis, owner of The Epicurean Connection in Sonoma, Calif., says that while her store stocks mostly domestic cheeses that haven’t been subject to the FDA’s sampling, she has noticed that the buzz around raw-milk cheeses has created a negative perception among consumers. "That’s the more confusing part for us,” she says, “explaining to them that there are safe raw-milk cheeses out there for them.”

Moskowitz, Jeka, and Mignucci have all seen a temporary reprieve from the FDA sampling and holds in recent weeks, but Jeka says it is only a matter of time before things start back up. Moskowitz would like to see a hold on sampling over the holiday season, but Karas is unable to give a definitive answer as to whether that will happen.

“In order to protect the integrity of the sampling process,” Karas explains, “FDA does not discuss the specifics of when and where samples are to be taken.”

The Specialty Food Association, which represents more than 3,000 producers, importers, distributors, and buyers, recognizes the importance of the FDA’s work, says Association president Ann Daw. She says that these issues, however, are becoming a hindrance for cheese buyers. “The Specialty Food Association is supportive of FDA’s commitment to keep food safe for all Americans,” Daw says. “However, it is holding at ports traditional European cheeses that are deemed safe for European consumption, thereby limiting choices available to U.S. consumers.”

For its part, the CIAA has been working with producers, retailers, and importers to lessen the sting of delayed inventory and continued holds, and has been relaying any violations or appearance of violations directly to importers and manufacturers. “The association has been working with FDA to formulate reasonable policies that can be implemented without causing these long, extensive delays,” Jeka notes.