Artisan cheese makers like Biddy Fraser-Davies could be forced out of business by soaring government compliance costs. The Food Safety Law Reform Bill may well result in higher compliance costs.
Biddy makes about $40,000 of cheese from four cows. Her cheeses have won super gold and silver at World Cheese Awards. She milks the cows herself and makes the cheese. For images of her cheese making process see Biddy’s website.
Biddy making cheese (image from Radio NZ)
Her cheese is made from raw milk and authorities have concerns about microbes. Before 2009 her compliance costs used to be a couple of hundred dollars a year. That year they went up to $5500. Because of her small scale, her costs now total $260 per kilo (you can read more detail in the Radio NZ article).
This is insane.
Compliance or risk?
One issue is the number of microbes permitted. According to the Radio NZ article, biddy says “In New Zealand it’s been set that you can’t have more than 1000, but in England the level is 10,000 and in Europe it’s 100,000. The raw cheese that is imported into New Zealand is allowed to have those higher standards.”
Many of you will experience creep of compliance in your work or businesses. It would be more appropriate in cases such as Biddy’s to assess risk. A two factor risk assessment process considers both the likelihood and the impact of an adverse event occurring. There was a report of a death from the consumption of raw milk in Australia a year or so ago, but how many rural families have been consuming raw milk for decades? When did you last hear of a health issue around raw milk? As an international prize-winning cheese maker, we can probably assume that Biddy approaches her craft with a high levels of professionalism. I would assume the likelihood of a health problem from eating her cheese is very low.
With her low volumes of production, the impact would also be low. By contrast, while Fonterra has excellent food safety standards, the impact of a bad batch of cheese would be much higher, based on their scale and global market presence.
The role of a Food Policy Council
Local Food Northland is in the process of researching the feasibility of establishing a Food Policy Council in Northland. This would be modelled on the work of the 282 Food Policy Councils in North America. A Food Policy Council would be a voice in policy for smaller food producers. The state of Vermont, for example has developed a regional plan to restore balance and sanity to regulations. Here is goal 23 of their plan:
“Regulations and enforcement capacity will ensure food safety, be scale appropriate, and allow Vermont food enterprises to increase production and expand their market outlets”.
The key words here are “scale appropriate”. The second part of the goal links increased production and expansion of markets to this scale appropriateness.
It seems that we have a government that pursues big economic numbers, but a strength of our economy is small business. Clumsy compliance will drive more small businesses to the wall. We only have three raw cheese makers in the country. It would be nice to increase that number, but I fear they will disappear.
If we can establish a Food Policy Council in Northland, hopefully they will be replicated around the country, enabling us to make our voice heard.
Biddy will be speaking at a select committee hearing into the bill on 13 October in Wellington. All power to her and her four cows, Dizzy, Holly, Patsy and Isobel!
And more on raw milk soon.