The Food Standards Agency today launched a food safety management awareness initiative aimed at the producers of specialist cheeses such as classic Cheddars, traditional Stiltons and crumbly Cheshires.
British consumers spend around £1.5bn generally on all types of cheese each year, and eat more than 590,000 tonnes.
There are around 450 different specialist British cheeses available today, made by 180 specialist producers. Many of these are small-scale businesses. Their products are often produced on farms from small herds or flocks using time-honoured methods involving open vats, hand-stirring, bandaging, and waxing.
The Agency, working with the Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association (SCA) and other stakeholders, will promote best practice to help specialist cheesemakers continue to produce cheeses safely, and to the highest standards.
The initiative was devised at the request of the cheesemakers to help maintain an organised approach to analysing hazards and managing food safety. The cornerstone of the initiative is a Workbook which has been designed to reduce the burdens of food safety planning and paperwork by systematically documenting production systems and identifying food safety hazards and appropriate controls. Production systems are required to be adequately documented and recorded by law. It is important that hazards associated with specialist cheesemaking are identified and managed in a structured way throughout the stages of production.
Producers and environmental health officers will work together with consultants to complete the Workbook, which will address issues such as clean milking; the risk of cross contamination from livestock for cheeses produced on farm; the control of bacteria in raw or pasteurised milk; contamination from poor hygiene practice and the environment; survival of pathogens from incorrect cheese acidification, temperature controls and preservation techniques.
Sir John Krebs, Chairman of the Food Standards Agency, speaking at the launch event where specialist cheeses were displayed and tasted, said: “There has been a revolution in the British cheese industry in the last 15 years, with old recipes revived, new ones created and rare types re-established.
“We want to ensure that this extraordinary diversity and the superb quality of British cheeses continues to be maintained.
“We know that specialist cheesemakers demonstrate time and again a real passion for their craft. The Food Safety Management system gives them a practical way in which to demonstrate excellence in standards of production and hygiene and to provide continued assurance to cheese-loving consumers.
I strongly urge cheesemakers and enforcement authorities to take advantage of this opportunity to work together.”
Chairman of the Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association, Tim Rowcliffe, said: “The Association is thrilled with the Food Standards Agency’s initiative. We feel that the workbook and other materials provide an excellent ongoing working tool for members, giving them confidence and peace of mind about their procedures.”
Cheese has been made for over 2,000 years yet the process has remained much the same.
· Milk from cows, goats, ewes and buffalo is pasteurised (except in the case of raw milk cheeses) and a bacterial starter is added to ‘sour’ and thicken the milk. Rennet is added to form curds from the milk protein, which are then allowed to set.
· To concentrate the curd, it is cut to release a liquid called whey (soft cheeses are cut lightly while hard cheeses are cut finely). The curds are either ‘cooked’ or are piled on top of each other (the latter process is known as ‘cheddaring’). The curd is milled and salt is added, after which the curd is pressed into moulds.
· The cheese is ripened. This takes place in storage rooms where temperature and humidity are controlled and varied according to the cheese being produced.
· Different cheeses are produced through slight changes at each of the different stages of production.
· For fresh cheeses, lactic acid is used to produce curds rather than rennet, and the cheese is not cut, pressed or ripened.
· For soft-ripened cheeses the curds are cut into large cubes to help retain the moisture, and the rind is sprayed with a surface mould to produce the soft, velvety growth and ripen the cheese from the outside in.
· For hard cheeses a high temperature is used to set the curd and the ripening process takes from three months to two years.
· In the case of some blue cheese, different cultures such as penicillium roqueforti are introduced to the milk. After about six weeks each cheese is pierced with stainless steel to let oxygen in. This encourages mould growth and permits other gases to escape.