Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Award-winning artisan cheese maker says red tape is killing the industry

Artisan cheese maker Biddy Fraser-Davies buttered up Parliament's Primary Production committee today by passing around some of her award-winning cheeses.

The small scale of the 74-year-old's Eketahuna operation, Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese, meant she was able to tell MPs the names of the cows that produced the milk for the cheese - Holly, Isobel and Patsy.

Cwmglyn cheese is special - served in the country's top restaurants, winner of a super gold award at the British Guild of Fine Foods 2014 World Cheese Awards in London, and picked to be on the menu for Prince George's Government House play-date the same year.

As the politicians were savouring the taste, Fraser-Davies delivered her message.

Small producers like hers are being pushed to the brink by Government regulations and the cost of compliance and testing.

That drove up prices and meant ordinary New Zealanders couldn't enjoy some of the country's best dairy products, she said.

"Small operations end up with a product which no one can afford except wealthy gourmets at high-end restaurants. And Government House."

Fraser-Davies in 2009 made a submission to the same select committee, and that same year the law was changed to permit raw milk cheese to be made.

"I'm back again because virtually nothing has changed for small production cheese makers, except the compliance has become even more expensive."

Cheeses made by Biddy Fraser-Davies.
Cheeses made by Biddy Fraser-Davies.

She said MPI's attitude seemed to be that raw milk cheese was "seething with catastrophic risk", and the compliance and testing hurdles suggested the ministry was deliberately steering production towards its preferred heat-treated method.

Fraser-Davies said her old age meant raw milk cheese-making was an easier process, and heat treatment produced an inferior cheese.

The European model recognised that different types of cheeses posed different risks, and all three raw milk cheese makers in New Zealand made products that were in the "safe" range according to that approach, Fraser-Davies said.

The cost of testing 10 cheeses recently had been $10,000. Compliance costs were on top of that.

Fraser-Davies recommended that low production raw milk cheese makers who made safer versions of cheeses should be allowed to operate with reduced testing.

Anna Tait-Jamieson, a former food manufacturer and now food journalist who has written about Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese, appeared alongside Fraser-Davies, and said New Zealand's artisan cheese making was safe.

"We are the world's leading dairy exporter. Milk, butter and cheese, it's how the world sees us. And yet our food safety laws make it nearly impossible for our artisan dairies to operate.

"I believe we are reaching a tipping point. By trying to eliminate risk, we risk losing the artisan sector. We need these small businesses to succeed, because they do what the big companies don't. They innovate, they set trends, they test the market and the big companies follow."

Raw milk cheese operators had to meet much higher standards than European manufacturers who sent products here, Tait-Jamieson said, and the current regime here was "paranoid and unfair".

"If Fonterra had to pay more than 40 per cent of their revenue in compliance costs, as Biddy will this year, they'd be screaming.

"It's high time that dairy scientists and MPI got together with the specialist cheese-makers to work out a sensible validation and testing regime, that is appropriate to the scale of their smaller, non-export businesses."

Committee chair and National MP Ian McKelvie thanked Fraser-Davies for her submission, and said he was particularly interested in her suggestion for reduced testing for small producers.

Labour MP Damien O'Connor said the submission reflected feedback he received from small producers in other industries.

There was still some cheese left when it was time for the next submitter, and Fraser-Davies was happy to leave it.

"The tin I bought at the Eketahuna op shop for $1, so I'm quite willing to donate that to Parliament."

- NZ Herald

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