Back in Business

Seana Doughty

In early January, California cheesemaker Seana Doughty announced a voluntary recall of all of her Bleating Heart cheeses—among them, the award-winning Fat Bottom Girl and Ewelicious—because FDA testing found evidence of a pathogen, Listeria monocytogenes, in some samples. Recently, she discussed the recall experience with Planet Cheese.
This experience must have been beyond stressful, especially for a new creamery like yours. Were you prepared? How did you respond?
I don’t know that you can ever be fully prepared for something like this. It is the absolute worst thing that can happen to a food manufacturer. We had had the same batches tested by a third-party lab, and they were free of pathogens. But the FDA had a different result, so we moved quickly to pull our cheese from the market.
Within 24 hours we had traced all affected batches to the relevant distributors and notified them of the recall. My husband, Dave, had to become the public face of the recall because I was having a hard time coping. In the beginning, I was having daily panic attacks. I was terrified that someone might get sick, scared of what might happen to our reputation as cheesemakers, how it would affect the viability of our company and what would happen to our employees if we didn’t survive.
No illnesses were ever traced to any Bleating Heart cheeses, correct?
Not only that, but a severely immunocompromised person ate some of the batch that FDA said had the highest contamination. She was an older relative of an employee, and she was undergoing chemotherapy. Our cheese was one of the few foods she craved and could tolerate. I am happy to report that she is fine.
How did you work with the FDA to resolve the problem and get up and running again?
Our plant license was suspended, and the creamery was put under quarantine. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) sent inspectors to conduct environmental sampling.The majority of the results were negative for Listeria, but a few did turn up positive. The “smoking guns” were the brushes that we use to wash rinds while the cheeses age. FDA agents spent three days interviewing us, taking pictures and collecting environmental samples. Of the 106 samples collected, none tested positive for Listeria. Nevertheless, because some cheese batches had tested positive, every batch had to be destroyed, even if it had tested free of Listeria. Then CDFA sent two more inspectors to do yet another round of environmental sampling. No Listeria was found, all the suspect cheese was gone, and so they reinstated our license.
Have you changed your procedures as a result of this experience?
Our creamery is on a farm, and there are risks in that environment. We now have greater protection from the farm and stricter standards for personal hygiene. We constructed a controlled-entry point to the creamery. (California law does not require this.) We now have color-coded uniforms and aprons. If someone is working in the aging room but has to go help in the production room, they have to change their shirt and their apron. We purchased a commercial kiln to heat-treat brushes and wooden aging boards. We have also implemented an expanded environmental sampling program, even though our environment was proven clean.

Bleating Heart

Before the recall, you were adamant about making your cheeses with raw milk. Do you still feel that way?
There was no evidence whatsoever that the Listeria came from the milk. We suspect that an employee must have inadvertently introduced it. We will continue making raw-milk cheese because we believe we have excellent milk suppliers, and we do a lot of testing. We also believe that we could make great cheese from pasteurized milk. We expect to add a fresh or short-aged cheese eventually, and the milk for that will need to be pasteurized because of federal regulations.
From your perspective, did anything positive come out of this experience?
It actually brought my husband and me closer, both as business partners and as a couple.  I can honestly say it made our marriage and our business stronger. It forced us to develop even more ambitious business goals because of the huge financial setback we sustained. We are now in hyperdrive, planning for our next creamery– a much bigger one.
The other huge positive was the outpouring of support from the cheese community. We received countless e-mails, calls and text messages, including some from people we had never met who just wanted to offer kind words. That really helped me pull myself together and move forward. I especially have to mention the crew at Cowgirl Creamery/Tomales Bay Foods. They have been behind us 100 percent and are still helping us get through this crisis.
In the end, what were your conclusions about how the FDA handles this type of case? Are their procedures appropriate for ensuring public health? Any changes you would like to see?

The FDA is charged with protecting public health, and their programs are supposed to ensure that.  The field agents who collected the samples in September, as well as the agents who conducted the investigation following the recall, were professional and courteous. The agents told us in September that we would receive test results within a couple of weeks, but we received nothing. We emailed the FDA eight times over 2-1/2 months, requesting results. We also left phone messages but our calls were never returned.

When we finally got the lab report, we discovered that they had test results on October 2, but we were not notified until December 15. Had FDA informed us in a timely manner, we would have immediately suspended cheesemaking. We asked FDA why we were not informed sooner but received no explanation. The recall cost our company close to $200,000. That number would be much smaller if FDA had provided us with the lab results sooner. No one got sick from our cheese, but what if someone had?

Editor’s Note: Doughty expects to release the year’s first Bleating Heart cheeses in early June.