Cut the cheese: New reg limits home-grown chevre

Goat farmer John Coles has spent the past 25 years manufacturing goat cheese and fighting for his right to sell it. Now his Satyrfield Dairy Farm faces a new regulation that passed the state Board of Agriculture on Thursday, May 15, and may seriously imperil Coles' livelihood by forcing him to comply with costly production and storage standards.

"No one has ever complained," Coles says, about the goat cheese products he sells privately and at farmers markets under the Satyrfield Farm label. And in fact, he says that during a typical Saturday morning at the Charlottesville City Market, he sells between $200 and $400 in cheese– a large portion of his farm's total sales.

Coles says he handles all aspects of the cheese production, from milking the goats to tending the cheese to selling from his farm and at farmer's markets.

"If a goat is sick," he claims, "I will know about it, and I won't use that milk."

One thing Coles won't do is pasteurize– i.e. boil– his milk. "It would change the flavor of the cheese," he claims. But that's what riles the regulators.

John Beers, program supervisor for the Virginia Department of Agriculture's office of dairy and foods, says the regulation all comes down to a public health issue.

"Milk from any mammal is the perfect medium for human pathogens to grow," he explains.

He cites campylobacter, a bacteria that causes fever, diarrhea, and abdominal cramping, as well as salmonella, which causes similar symptoms, and can be fatal. Even tuberculosis can be spread through dairy products.

But Christine Solem, Coles' partner and director of the Virginia State Dairy Goat Association, says such claims are bunk. She claims the state has offered "absolutely no evidence" on the alleged health risks of raw milk cheese, despite her organization's request for an evidentiary hearing.

Beers acknowledges no hearing has been held, but he has a quick response for Solem.

"I'm sorry if the scientific evidence going back over 100 years is insufficient," he says.

Solem plans to ask Governor Warner to suspend the regulations– currently scheduled to go into effect in January 2004– until something can be done at the legislative level.

"It will put us out of business," she says, citing the estimated $50,000 price tag to bring her farm up to the standards required by the regulation.

There has been a "really extraordinary" response to the regulations, Solem says, with 169 constituents writing to the General Assembly to object. Most of those are customers of small goat farmers like Solem and Coles who will no longer be able to obtain the product they enjoy.

But the issue is more than a local problem. Slow Food, an international organization based in Italy, is dedicated to preserving traditional foods and small business manufacturing methods.

Slow Food spokesperson Robert LaValva says the Virginia goat cheese issue is one in which his organization would be "very interested."

Where such traditions run up against public health concerns– as is the case here in Virginia– LaValva says his organization can often help.

"There are ways to ensure the safety of the product without driving the price too high or compromising the taste," LaValva says.

Solem and Coles hope something can be worked out before the regulations take effect. But should that fail, neither will take the new law lying down.

Coles vows to continue making and selling his cheese as an act of civil disobedience.

Violation of the law will be a Class One misdemeanor, with a prison sentence of up to one year and a fine as high as $2,500. But Coles says he's not afraid of lawmakers and enforcers.

"They're no different from Saddam Hussein," he insists. "They're not representing the majority."