Submited by: Heather Donahue
The American Cheese Society annual conference for 2018 was held in Pittsburgh, PA. I attended several sessions and a full day workshop on Food Safety Plan development.
The Deep Dive and Coaching for Developing a Food Safety Plan(FSP) was a heavy start to the conference for me. It was the first session that I attended, and was solely dedicated to writing components of the Food Safety Plan that comply with the new FSMA rules that have been under development in the last few years. The workshop was staffed by Cooperative Extension Educators from Cornell, Ohio State, Iowa state and the Dairy Practices Council. In this packed session, attendees had varied levels of experience with Food Safety Plans. Several, like myself, were just starting the process of documentation while others were well versed in writing plans, but wanted clarification about the new rules. We were given two great resource binders: Artisan Dairy Food Safety Plan Coaching, and Artisan Dairy Food Safety Plan: Templates. Both resource binders have been incredibly helpful to me in the time since as I work on my plan. Other resources include a Food Safety Plan Builder on the FDA website, although instructors cautioned that there are some components missing and that the strength of the site is the hazard analysis guidance. The ACS has its own Safe Cheesemaking Hub (https://guides.cheesesociety.org/safecheesemakinghub), which acts as a clearinghouse for resources: links to templates, additional opportunities for trainings, online courses and many other resources.
The workshop began by defining some of the terminology that is used in the new format for FSP and reviewing the parts of a FSP. For example: Allergens are considered Chemical Hazards. A helpful tip the instructional team provided was to start general and work your way to become more specific. Begin with a written description of each product and the distribution, the intended use and customers, then more to the more specific parts, like a flow chart for the make process for types of cheeses. Similar products can be grouped in one flow chart: cheddar cheese would use a very similar flow chart to a cheddar cheese with herbs added. The type of cheese remains the same, with additional step(s) of adding the herbs.
My biggest impression of this workshop day was to begin with the resources you have and build on them until your plan is complete. The hardest part is to get started without feeling overwhelmed. There is a lot of help out there as well as additional trainings. Our Maine Cooperative Extension staff is also very helpful and can provide review of plan components.
The remaining sessions I chose to attend focused on local foods and foods systems- being from a small state and having a small creamery, these talks were very interesting to me. Transhumance, Terroir, Old and New Frontiers in Bandaged Cheddars, Drink Apples and Eat Cheese- All of these workshops focused on the relationships between the place and geography of a food and the culture of the people making the food. Transhumance and Alpage cheeses focuses cheese production on the seasonal availability of grazing land higher altitudes in the summer and lower valleys in the winter. It is the ultimate in terroir- the taste of place- as the cheeses can change based on the forage the animals are eating. It is truly an economy built on the landscape of the area and the influence of the terrain is unmistakable While we do not have high mountains on our farm, we do notice a change in our cheese during the seasons and based on the pastures we are rotating our cattle through. The tasting session for bandaged cheddars had an interesting twist of tasting cheeses of different ages from the same creamery as well as cheese that was made in one creamery and aged in two different aging spaces. There was a remarkable difference in the finished cheeses although they had the same origin. The microbes of the place in which they were aged exerted their influence on the finished cheese. In addition to tasting the cheeses, we also had the opportunity to smell the aging spaces! Cotton balls were left in place for a period of time to absorb the atmosphere, then placed in a sealed vial. It was remarkable to smell the caves and then taste the cheeses- it was like being transported to England!
The cider and cheese tasting session was the ultimate in terroir- pairings of Pennsylvania hard ciders and cheeses. This type of pairing presents marketing opportunities for creameries to partner with local cider makers. This seems like a very historical pairing of artisanal foods- where many farmers would have had cows (or goats) and apple trees on their farms. Hard cider and cheese were likely staple foods for farm families. European cheese makers and governments have recognized the value of preserving their food heritage by instituting standards for foods with Protected Designated of Origin and other programs. While Maine cheese makers utilize old world cheese methods and recipes, there is no doubt that the cheeses made in Maine are unique to our place and special in their own right.
The cheese sale at the end of the conference is a great way to pick up new cheeses to enjoy at home. I lugged home a small bag of cheese that I broke down into smaller pieces to enjoy over the next several months. As a New Englander, I am partial to cheddars- there was a great variety to inspire me in my own cheesemaking!