By Ellen G. Lahr
Berkshire Eagle Staff
Wednesday, March 30, 2005
GREAT BARRINGTON — The maker of Berkshire Blue cheese, who voluntarily recalled two batches of his product after a routine inspection found a problematic bacteria, said yesterday that all but 13 of the 100 cheese wheels are accounted for, and that he’s not aware of any illness from consumption of the product.
Michael Miller of Berkshire Cheese Makers, whose facility operates on Crissey Road, said he is awaiting results of 17 different tests he has privately arranged to determine the source of the bacteria listeria, which can cause short-term illness and more serious infections in the elderly, pregnant women and others with weakened immune systems.
His operation has been shut down for two weeks, and won’t reopen until he has clear test results from Northeast Laboratories in Berlin, Conn., he said.
“My distributors have all received letters saying they should check their coolers,” Miller said yesterday.
The gourmet cheese is distributed around New England and New York and beyond, to both restaurants and specialty shops. The affected batches, however, were delivered within Berkshire County.
Miller said he ordered additional tests after a routine inspections conducted by the Food and Drug Administration showed the listeria.
The FDA’s cheese samples were taken from batches sent to stores in late February or early March, but those tests only involved the cheese itself. The FDA purchased 10 cheese wheels, he said.
“It’s an open secret that the FDA wants to ban all foods in this country made from raw milk,” said Miller this week. “I hear this from other raw milk cheesemakers I visit as well.”
Miller said yesterday he has ordered tests on his water supply, processing equipment, the production room itself and the raw milk supplies used by the company, among other possible sources.
He declined to say which farm supplies his raw milk; he said High Lawn Farm in Lee is no longer a supplier, contrary to information posted on the company’s Web site.
One of the unaccounted-for cheese wheels was at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge yesterday.
Red Lion Marketing Director David Durfee said that he had just learned about the recall and that the kitchen had at least one cheese wheel with the “QA” or “QB” batch label. None had been consumed yet, he said.
“We’ll be looking at all of our Berkshire Blue cheese and making sure anything coded this way is not served to our guests,” he said.
Miller, who has been producing Berkshire Blue for six years, typically makes about 50 wheels of cheese per week, though his busiest stretch is from May through December.
The cheese has a wholesale price of $7.50 per pound, and sells for up to $20 per pound on store shelves, depending on location, he said.
Miller said that the FDA may be looking into all raw milk operations in general and that the agency’s recent inspection of his facility was not triggered by a complaint or mandate.
“This hasn’t been confrontational at all,” he said. “They’ve been a big help and have offered to come back and watch the cheese being made.”
On March 14, the FDA issued an advisory regarding the consumption of raw milk cheeses, particularly those produced in Central America.
“FDA further advises that there is some risk of infection from a number of pathogenic bacteria for anyone who eats raw milk soft cheese from any source,” the agency stated.
Miller said he plans to carry on with expanding production capacity at his cheese factory and is considering adding a new line of cheese, Berkshire Cheddar.
Miller said he intends to purchase his own testing equipment for his plant as soon as operations resume.
Berkshire Blue is a handmade cheese made by Miller and another employee, who work with 60-gallon batches of whole milk.
“Other than the truck that delivers our milk, and our heating and refrigeration equipment, no mechanical devices are involved in the process,” the company Web site reads. “Vats are hand-stirred, curds are hand-cut and hand ladled into small 2 1/2-pound molds, which are hand-turned, hand-needled, and hand-turned again (more than 24 times in all). The cheese is then hand-wrapped and labeled.”