FDA seizure leaves cheesemaker depleted
Estrellas hire lawyer, plan to fight back against federal agency
By STEVE BROWN
Cheesemaker Kelli Estrella said she has received "support beyond belief" since federal officials seized her entire stock of cheeses Oct. 21, and she plans to fight back.
"The phone has been ringing off the hook," she said at the Estrella Family Creamery near Montesano, Wash. "Customers are in tears, they're infuriated, and they're enraged they can't get their cheese."
Officials of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service on Oct. 21 raided Kelli and Anthony Estrella's farm, which produces cheese from raw, certified organic milk produced by its 100 goats and 35 cows.
The issue dates back to February, when tests turned up evidence of Listeria monocytogenes in three of the creamery's cheeses.
"We aggressively went after the problem and dumped it all," she said. "We upgraded the facilities and made really big changes. All testing since then came back negative, until out of the blue in the soft cheese room, L. mono showed up. We dumped the whole thing all over again."
She said the farm voluntarily recalled all of the affected cheeses, "but the FDA seized everything because we refused to recall it all."
FDA officials on Sept. 3 asked the Estrellas to recall all of its cheese products, and when they refused, the next day the FDA issued a warning to consumers regarding the potential presence of Listeria monocytogenes in the cheese.
"Estrella's cheese products were seized to prevent the sale and dissemination of adulterated and potentially contaminated food," the agency's press release said after the seizure.
Estrella has retained an attorney and intends to challenge the FDA's actions.
If the Estrellas wish to avoid forfeiture of the cheese, they have 35 days from the date of the complaint, Oct. 21, to file a notice of claim to the seized material, according to a district court warrant provided by Emily Langlie of the Department of Justice.
Estrella has been making cheese for 25 years -- seven of them at the current farm -- and there have been no reports of illness from people eating her 20 different kinds of raw-milk cheese, she said. The cheeses are sold at specialty cheese shops, farmers' markets and the farm store.
Estrella's dealings with FDA inspectors have left her with raw feelings, she said.
"Things in that report are completely untrue," she said.
She said the FDA inspectors also fouled her operation when they seized the cheeses, entering the caves unsanitized and without booties.
"I've done everything to be a model in this industry, going beyond what the inspectors asked. I even asked them, 'What else can I do?' I got no answer," she said. "Then this seizure of my cheese."
In the meantime, the milk from the creamery's cows and goats is being fed to the pigs and calves and is being made into butter for the family. "We're not dumping it out," she said.