Cheese recall shows the safety in small numbers

Ron Marks didn’t sleep much last Tuesday night. That day, the founder and head of AtlantaFresh Artisan Creamery had issued his first-ever product recall.

It wasn’t something that any company owner wants to do. However, the recall stands out as an example of how the food safety system is supposed to work—and how it is especially effective in simple, highly localized food distribution networks.

During a routine safety check Tuesday at AtlantaFresh, a Georgia Department of Agriculture inspector had discovered a problem: During the making of a batch of fresh mozzarella cheese the Friday before, a state-calibrated thermometer had registered a pasteurization temperature that was one degree below the legal requirement. The milk should have been held at 145 degrees for 30 minutes; this batch recorded a temperature of 144 degrees. Following state guidelines, the agency requested that Marks recall the product.

“This is the way we work with industry to get these products that are suspect out of the marketplace,” explains Oscar Garrison, division director of consumer protection, Georgia Department of Agriculture. “If a company didn’t do a voluntary recall, and there was a health concern, we would issue a consumer advisory not to consume this product.”

Now, Marks was quite certain that his cheese was absolutely safe. Another thermometer in the same batch had read 146 to 147 degrees during pasteurization. And this was four days after the cheese had been made and distributed and, in all likelihood, already consumed. No one had reported any illness—including the cheesemakers, who taste every batch.

Besides, Marks trusts his milk supply. Unlike most other dairy processors, AtlantaFresh doesn’t buy milk from a cooperative of multiple farmers. It gets it all from Johnston Family Farm, an independent dairy in Newborn. So Marks knows a lot about the quality of the milk he uses and where it’s been: quite recently, in a cow.

“I know that farmer and I know those cows,” he says. “That milk was less than 24 hours old. But the Georgia Department of Agriculture protocol and the food safety laws, they need to be respected. And I don’t make light of the importance of those laws to our customers—and for our customers.”

Although a recall resulting from a process deviation is relatively rare, what was especially notable about this recall was its simplicity. AtlantaFresh makes its fresh mozzarella in 80-gallon batches. Only 60 pounds of cheese had been distributed—and only to a half-dozen farmers markets.

To get the word out, all AtlantaFresh had to do was contact the market managers, post a notice on a few websites, and offer anyone who still had the cheese a refund or replacement and some free yogurt for their trouble. (That offer still stands, by the way. If you have AtlantaFresh fresh—not smoked—mozzarella with a “Best by 7/16” freshness date, bring it back to your farmers market this weekend for a refund and a gift from AtlantaFresh. The cheese was sold at Alpharetta, Grant Park, Marietta Square, Peachtree Road, Piedmont Park and Sandy Springs farmers markets.)

“That’s really the crux of food safety,” Marks says. “With the mega food processors, there are a thousand points of supply coming in, and it’s going back out to a thousand points of distribution. One of the advantages of small-batch products is you can so easily pinpoint where the product went to.” In this case, tracing the supply and distribution points of all affected product took about five minutes.

Marks says that to avoid future issues, AtlantaFresh has increased its pasteurization temperature by three degrees.

Marks lost sleep on Tuesday night not because of any doubt about the safety of his product or even worry about the cost of the recall, but because of concern over his customers’ confidence in him. “Making our customers safe and secure with us really is the prime directive for me, as far as getting the best product out there that we can make.”

He needn’t have worried. Because of the nature of local food distribution networks, AtlantaFresh consumers know the dairy, the creamery, even the salespeople at the farmers markets. They trust the local system.

By Wednesday morning, customer response had poured in.

“Just the vote of support and confidence expressed on our Facebook page has been very gratifying to me,” Marks says.