Canary in the Cheese Cave: Uplands Cheese Halts Production of an American Classic Amid Industry Concerns

Uplands Cheese sent a ripple through the cheese world when they announced that they had cancelled production of Rush Creek Reserve. Could this be the first of many great cheeses to fall as the FDA shifts its regulation?

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The holiday season fast approaches, and with it comes the busiest time of the year at Brooklyn’s cheese counters. With everyone looking to stock their holiday slates, cheesemongers can count on moving a lot of their best wheels, and they always have recommendations for which cheeses make for the perfect plating.

This year, however, one name will be missing from the must-have list, and it’s a coveted favorite for cheesemongers and customers alike. Rush Creek Reserve, produced by Uplands Cheese, is a Vacherin-style, bark wrapped, gooey beauty of a cheese, consumed by slicing the top off the round and digging out big dollops of the custardy interior with a spoon. Or at least it was: on August 15th, Andy Hatch, co-owner and head cheesemaker at Uplands, sent a ripple through the cheese world when he announced via an email to his customers that Uplands had cancelled production of Rush Creek Reserve. In his own words:

I’m writing to let you know that we will not be making any Rush Creek Reserve this year. It’s disappointing news, I know, and we hope that it’s not permanent. Food safety officials have been unpredictable, at best, in their recent treatment of soft, raw-milk cheeses, and until our industry is given clear and consistent guidance, we are forced to stop making these cheeses. I’m sorry if this throws a wrench into your plans for the holidays — it certainly does on our end. It’s not a decision we came to easily. Hopefully, our government officials will soon agree on how to treat traditional cheesemaking, and we can all return to the cheeses that are so important to us.

This letter came as a shock for many reasons: Uplands, while a small cheesemaker, is a well-established and respected producer of award-winning cheeses, and known for its rigorous sanitation and hygiene practices. Rush Creek Reserve has won multiple awards, and their other cheese, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, won Best of Show in the American Cheese Society‘s annual competition an unprecedented three times.

What’s more, Rush Creek Reserve is a guaranteed top seller with most wheels reserved by cheesemakers before the milk has even hit the vats. Finally, both of their cheeses are highly seasonal in nature because Uplands feels that the summer milk is ideally suited for an alpine like the Pleasant Ridge, while the cold-weather milk is best suited to a soft-ripened style such as the Rush Creek. They will likely be selling the winter milk as a liquid commodity to Agrimark rather than risk the financial hit of having the FDA block the sale of their cheese after it’s already aging on the shelves and getting ready to ship.

And the impact is being felt. “The queries have already begun.” says Lilith Spencer, cheesemonger at Brooklyn Larder. ” Folks know that the season for Rush Creek is approaching, and it breaks my heart every time I have to disappoint them with the truth.”

Many mongers, while disappointed, are not entirely surprised by Upland’s decision. As Eric Casella, cave manager at Bedford Cheese Shop, said, “Personally, if I were in Uplands position, I would probably have done the same from a business standpoint… Having such a massive cash cow (excuse the pun) turn from previously certain to entirely uncertain due to potentially changing regulations, and inconsistent week to week statements, would be a budgetary nightmare. From an emotional standpoint, it’s better to end things on your own good terms than someone else’s bad ones.”

And this isn’t the only cheese that may go missing this fall. The FDA has greatly increased the number of  “Holds” and “FDA Import Alerts” placed on cheeses coming into the country, with even time-tested classics like Roquefort getting stopped at the border. Of particular focus for the FDA is “non-toxigenic E Coli” — harmless strains of the coliform which may be present in the cheese but pose no danger to consumers. Rather, their presence is used as a marker to indicate poor hygiene and sanitation practices during production and therefore the risk of other health threats.

This approach works great for pasteurized-milk cheeses, in which any E. coli (toxigenic or not) should have been killed by the high temperatures. But in raw milk cheeses, the presence of non-toxigenic E Coli is not unexpected, so if you’re looking for it, you’ll end up flagging many cheeses which are perfectly safe. The limits for nontoxigenic E. coli were dropped to just 10 MPN (most probable number) per gram, from the former limit of 100 MPN — an extremely low limit. After protests from the American Cheese Society and other industry voices, the FDA issued a statement clarifying that they were not banning Roquefort or other cheeses, and had raised the limit back up to 100 MPN. But for many raw milk cheeses, this limit may still be too low, and some find the statement hollow.

“I think that the hold on Roquefort has had the biggest impact on our customers so far.” says Spencer at Brooklyn Larder. “It’s a wonderful cheese that most people are familiar with, and while some versions are better than others, I think mongers put a lot of effort into finding the best one for their particular store. We bought as much as we could of the brand we carry (Gabriel Coulet), and I doubt it will last us through Halloween.”

French exporter Pascal Beillevaire (affineurs of coveted cheeses like Colombier des Pigeons, Tomme Brulée, Vendéen Bichonne and others) has even announced that for the time being they will no longer be shipping to the US due to financial losses caused by repeated holds on their shipments by the FDA. All of this creates a troubling period for cheese professionals and consumers alike.

“I’m sure there will be continuous sporadic losses if this amount of uncertainty and FDA flip-flopping continues,” says Casella. “I’m not sure if it’s better that way, or to have definitive restrictions put in place, and see a huge drop in American cheese production for a bit while makers adjust. Cheese industry folks are pretty resilient, so I think regardless of changing climate, the industry will continue to grow and hopefully the FDA grows and learns along with it.”

In an email exchange with me, Andy Hatch of Uplands added an additional note of caution: “All of us selling cheese these days, raw or not, should be testing every batch and tightening up our environmental control and monitoring. Each small problem just adds another arrow to the FDA’s quiver.”

While we’re sad to see Rush Creek Reserve go (hopefully just on temporary hiatus), the good news is that until it comes back, there are other options if you need to get your bark-wrapped cheese fix. Here are some alternatives, all well worth seeking out in their own right. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the European wheels won’t get caught in the FDA net, but here’s hoping they cross the sea safely:

Winnimere, The Cellars at Jasper Hill, Greensboro, VT
This raw milk scooper, aged 60 days and with a complex flavor full of sweet cream, bacon and smoke, comes with serious street cred, having won Best Of Show at the 2013 American Cheese Society competition, and has a following as passionate as Rush Creek’s. Winnimere and Rush Creek are roughly on the same seasonal calendar, and as a result many mongers were torn each year as to which one to stock, so you can’t go wrong with the Winnie. The Cellars also produce Harbison, a bark-wrapped bloomy rind cheese.

Vacherin, Vacherin Mont D’Or, assorted producers, France and Switzerland
When in doubt, there’s no harm in going with the original! There’s a reason American cheesemakers have become enamored with producing bark-wrapped cheeses, and it comes back to Vacherin and Vacherin Mont d’Or. They are essentially the same cheese, but Vacherin (or Vacherin du Haut Doubs) comes from France, whereas the Mont D’Or hails from directly across the border in Switzerland.

Försterkäse, Chas & Co, Switzerland
The cheese comes from Toggenurg, east of Zurich, and the name means “Lumberjack Cheese”; this pungent washed rind wheel is full of woodsy, beefy aroma and flavor, and is the first bark-wrapped cheeses I can remember tasting, after Vacherin.

Hölzige Geiss, Willi Schmid, Switzerland
If you want to go a bit off the radar, this is your cheese. the name means “wooden goat”, and this unusual bark-wrapped goat’s milk cheese comes from the wild man of Swiss cheesemaking, Willi Schmid, known for his creative approach to cheesemaking and charmingly eccentric personality. An unusual texture, almost marshmallow-like; with a sweet, tangy, complex flavor and a distinctly arboreal flavor from the fir bark, especially near the rind.

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Matt Spiegler is an urban cheesemaker, crafting and aging his wheels in Gowanus, Brooklyn, and a cheese blogger at cheesenotes.com. He completed the Cheesemaker Certification program at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese and worked at Woodcock Farm, a sheep dairy in Weston, VT. When not tending to his wheels or exploring the many facets of the cheese world he also writes code.