In a case that has been closely watched by raw food advocates and small-batch food producers, artisan cheesemaker Sally Jackson said she plans to shut down her 30-year-old business after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration linked eight cases of E. coli to her Oroville, Wash.-based farm.
Sally Jackson Cheeses are made from raw sheep, goat and cow's milk wrapped in distinctive grape and chestnut leaves. The cheeses are shipped to many different retailers and restaurants across the country, including Whole Foods Market.
This E. coli outbreak highlights small farms' potential impact on national health, with Sally Jackson E. coli outbreak spread in the disparate locations of Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Minnesota.
Sally Jackson is not the first raw-milk cheese facility to face FDA scrutiny, and some critics have accused the FDA of unfairly targeting raw milk cheesemakers and encouraging recalls with no instances of illness.
This November, raw cheese producers Bravo Farms based in Traver, Calif., Morningland Dairy from Mountain View, Mo., and Estrella Family Creamery based in Montesano, Wash. all recalled cheese due to possible bacterial contamination.
After several recalls for specific cheeses, the Estrella Family Creamery refused to consent an overall recall, and U. S. Marshals seized all of the company's cheeses, citing potential Listeria contamination due to unsanitary facility conditions.
On December 17, the FDA announced a voluntarily recall of all Sally Jackson cheeses due to a potential link to an E. coli outbreak.
A December FDA inspection report details many health violations, suggesting that the facility is not up to food production standards, with inadequate hand washing facilities; unclean surfaces; untreated and cracked wood; mold and deposits; and a water supply that is cross connected with waste water systems.
Prior to the outbreak, the Washington State Department of Agriculture had given Sally Jackson Cheese 30 days to meet Grade A dairy standards after a November inspection revealed health violations. Earlier in the year the WSDA put the dairy on notice for other violations that the manufacturer appeared to be working to fix.
If not for the E. coli outbreak, some of the small cheese company's practices, such as using chipped flowerpots as cheese molds, might have been romanticized by consumers as an old fashioned way of producing food.
“My argument then was that I have never made anybody sick in 30 years. That's what breaks my heart now, that this is how it ended. This has never happened,” Sally Jackson told the Associated Press.
The Associated Press reported Sally Jackson Cheese's yearly taxable income as a meager $12,000, which will likely prevent her from rebuilding her facility to code.
Approved last month, the Food Safety Modernization Act gave greater control to the FDA to prevent outbreaks and dictate standards, but the bill left an exemption for small farms, igniting a national debate on the government's role in small farm regulation. Sally Jackson Cheese would not be included in this exemption due to the breadth of its distribution.
Some small farm supporters suggest increased training in sanitation and recall procedures for owners of small farms to prevent future outbreaks.
In a WSDA report following a May inspection, the inspector notes giving Sally Jackson information and websites for the FDA's Food Security Preventative Measures Guidance and information on preventing Listeria. The report states that Sally Jackson did not have a recall plan, and her employees received no training aside from “informal, verbal on-the-job training.”