The curious legal system of the United Kingdom, wherein Scotland and Northern Ireland each have the power to create their own separate laws, but Wales is completely subjugated to English law, creates lots of confusion even for its own citizens. Raw milk for drinking, for example, is legal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (though only when sold directly to consumers, and cannot be bought in shops or supermarkets) but prohibited in Scotland. However, cheeses made using raw milk are legal, in all of the UK, though the Food Standards Agency (Food Standards Scotland, or FSS, in Scotland) has the power to crackdown on producers who they feel are putting consumers at risk.
That’s exactly what has happened to the producers of Errington Cheese, a traditional artisan cheesemaker that uses raw (unpasteurized) milk in the production of some of its cheeses. When a child died in an outbreak of E.coli O157 in Scotland in September 2016, the authorities blamed Errington, and swiftly forced them to stop production of all their cheeses, resulting in job losses for skilled artisans, doyens of UK cheesemaking who would certainly not find such skilled work easily elsewhere, and indeed, threatening the local food culture.
Though the Errington cheesemakers were denied the opportunity to appeal the decision (FSS has no appeals process), they set up a crowdfunding effort to take the case to court, and have since been battling to win back their livelihoods. But the FSS would seem to be a fairly implacable institution, and according to food journalist Joanna Blythman, “draconian.” She writes in an article for Bella Caledonia: “It is mainly funded by Scottish taxpayers’ money, but it seems to be accountable only to its handpicked board. Ministers can intervene if FSS commits an offense, but are not obliged to do so. Everyone appreciates that FSS needs strong powers to protect public health, but can it be right that it acts not only as prosecutor but also as judge and jury?”
The situation has been made even more frustrating by the fact the Errington cheesemakers have had their own tests done on their cheese by experts in France to prove their innocence in the case, and indeed, the UK’s leading authority on E.coli O157, Emeritus Professor Hugh Pennington of the University of Aberdeen has said that FSS has “no microbiological evidence” to link the outbreak to Errington.
The good news is, despite all these difficulties, Errington is making cheese again – but the situation is rather urgent. If they are not able to overturn the verdict of the FSS soon, the cheese cannot be sold, and will necessarily go to waste. John Cooke, long time member of Slow Food Scotland, told us “they are producing without being able to sell in the hope of a favorable result from courts – but don’t know when they’ll have a chance to prove the safety of the cheese”. Indeed, the entire company is at stake here, as the loss of revenue which would result from the destruction of the cheese currently in storage may very well be insurmountable.
In the meantime, the Errington cheese case has rallied many members of Slow Food Scotland to offer both financial and moral support, because, as John Cooke says, “The Erringtons are just the type of people that we at Slow Food should be supporting. A small family farm producing a valuable artisan product: good for biodiversity and extremely important to the resilience of their rural community where skilled jobs with dignity are scarce.”