The Estrella Family Creamery cheese counter has become a familiar sight at the weekly University District Farmers Market. Anthony Estrella watches over two or three of his children as they discuss varieties with customers, offer samples, and cut and wrap wedges for buyers. For a decade the family has been crafting award-winning handmade cheeses from the raw milk of organically raised, grass-fed cows and goats at their dairy farm in Montesano, Grays Harbor County.
But on Saturday (Oct. 30), the Estrella vendor space was occupied by a table of experts on planting winter gardens. One week earlier, family members did show up but had nothing to offer except flyers telling about a federal seizure of all their products. Over the past two months, state and federal regulators had found listeria monocytogenes in some of Estrella’s cheeses and production areas. With no income and many animals to feed, the Estrellas told their customers, the dairy might have to close forever.
Anthony and Kelli Estrella moved to Washington 10 years ago with their three adopted children, seeking to build an organic dairy business and run it in sustainable ways. The family’s story (as told last year in Culture: the word on cheese) continued with the couple’s purchase of a decaying 19th-century dairy with acreage in the Chehalis River basin. The couple began renovating the place, bought cattle and goats to raise organically in the farm’s grassy pastures, and started making cheeses that eventually won prizes from as far away as the U.K. and Ireland.
Kelli describes on the company’s website how the family itself expanded over the years: “I noticed that there was a lot of food on our table and some empty chairs,” so the couple adopted three Liberian orphans. “Together, the kids are learning that hard work won't kill them, and that the pursuit of excellence in our craft and careful nurturing of the creatures placed in our care yield a tremendous reward.”
No infections in Estrella customers have been reported. But Emily Langlie, at the Western Washington U.S. Attorney’s Office, said in a phone conversation that a series of tests conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over several weeks, with intervals for the owners to correct problems in between, kept finding Listeria in the dairy.
"We have not done a lot of these kinds of seizures,” Langlie added, “and we don't do it lightly." A link to a photocopied filing that outlines the FDA tests and results is posted at Tami Parr’s Pacific Northwest Cheese Project. A federal document online describes unsanitary practices on the premises. (The FDA is involved because the company ships across state lines. The Washington State Department of Agriculture also has been involved.)
Some Pacific Northwest foodies are outraged at what they see as an unwarranted governmental assault on a hardworking family’s small farm. Shortly after the FDA confiscated the Estrella inventory, Seattle Local Food blogger Deb Gardner posted a defense of the steps taken by the owners after the initial finding of Listeria on the premises. Gardner is asking readers to advocate with elected officials on behalf of the company.
Arguing that Estrella’s “current inspection records … show that all cheeses have tested negative,” she writes that “the FDA decided to shut down the dairy on the claim that the cheese might have Listeria, with no burden of proof to demonstrate they do, or to acknowledge records that show this is no longer a problem.” In Gardner’s view, Estrella’s difficulties must partly stem from unfair U.S. politics and prejudices against the sale of raw-milk products.
A few days later, Gardner’s article was posted on an East Coast blog called Foodfreedom, which advocates for “the right to choose your own food or farmer.” The reprinted article appears beside a quotation attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.”
An update Kelli Estrella posted on her company’s website Oct. 22 is similarly indignant. She describes federal marshals invading the family's property, “alarming the kids,” and potentially destroying a small family business. She asks Estrella customers to speak out in defense of “the right to choose your food.” Over the weekend (Oct. 30) Estrella posted a link to a Farmer's Legal Defense Fund blog called FDA's Ace in the Hole, which summarizes actions taken against raw-milk dairies and argues that upcoming Congressional legislation will strengthen what the writer claims is an FDA campaign of "pushing its anti-raw milk agenda."
The storm of indignation about the FDA’s action drove Seattle food-safety attorney Bill Marler to write on his own blog Thursday (Oct. 28): “Boy, have I heard it from the raw-milk, locavore, anti-government folks over the last few days.” Marler gained national attention as a plaintiff's attorney during the state's deadly Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in the early 1990s, then went on to represent families of children sickened by unpasteurized Odwalla apple juice sold in Seattle in 1996.
In his blog Marler summarized the FDA inspection report of Estrella's many failures to meet sanitary standards. But he wrote that he agrees with critics on this point: The FDA should be as tough on agribusinesses as they are on small family farmers. If the agency is willing to take a step that will entirely shut down a small family farm, actions against corporate agricultural operations found to have produced contaminated foods should entail similar consequences. Of course, big businesses can generally afford the emergency measures including legal procedures that can keep them running after a complaint is filed.
Listeria recalls are not limited to raw-milk or family-farm products. The FDA takes the pathogen seriously wherever it is found. In 2010, according to Marler’s blog, there have been enforced roundups of a long list of foods that tested positive for Listeria, such as Tyson beef, Zemco deli meats, Louisiana sausage, sliced fresh apples, turkey breast, lobster meat, ham, and spinach-artichoke dip.
Listeria grows in animal feces and causes flu-like symptoms including fever. It is dangerous to children, seniors, immuno-compromised individuals, and pregnant women, who can suffer miscarriages or stillbirths as a result of exposure. Pasteurizing raw milk by boiling it kills the bacteria, but unsanitary production practices can contaminate cheeses made from milk that has been boiled. Early this year two pregnant mothers in Oregon came down with listeriosis after consuming an infected pasteurized cheese, and their babies were born seriously ill.
Many readers will remember the Odwalla contamination, which killed one child and caused kidney failure in several others. After the outbreak, the company recalled nearly all its juices then adopted sanitizing practices including flash pasteurization. Despite taking a hard financial hit, it recovered and was bought in 2001 by The Coca-Cola Co. Given that experience, the parties involved in Estrella's cheese seizure — including the family, the foodies, the libertarians and locavores — should take a deep breath, consider what's most important, and look ahead toward a solution that might allow for savoring artisanal food while safeguarding the health of those who eat it.