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October 26, 2010 at 12:34 PM

Estrella Family Creamery: whey-ing the woes

“Feds seize Estrella’s cheeses” read the headline in the print version of today’s Seattle Times. “Estrella Family Creamery shut down by FDA after bacteria found” says the online version of the ongoing story pitting Food and Drug Administration officials against a small family farm known for its award-winning raw-milk cheeses. It’s a story that has everyone from food-safety attorney Bill Marler to local-food bloggers weighing in, and one that has the Estrella family’s business — shuttered by the FDA last week — on the line.

This may not mean much to you — if you’re not a fan of the Estrella family’s cheeses: the very cheeses I regularly stand in line for at local farmers markets. Among them: these deliciosities, purchased at the University District Farmers Market Saturday before last, which I felt obligated to toss in the garbage after reading the FDA report (but not before enjoying them with dinner guests Saturday night).

Into the trash? A sad day, indeed.

And I’m not the only one removing those beloved cheeses from the shelf after the FDA asked cheesemakers Kelli and Anthony Estrella to initiate a recall (they refused). “We’re not the type to panic, but we want to be safe,” says DeLaurenti co-owner Pat McCarthy, who today has several Estrella cheeses in house but has pulled them from his cheese case.

That said, McCarthy and DeLaurenti cheese-buyer Connie Rizzo are not happy to have to ditch the product. The FDA “pulled every single cheese they make,” Rizzo said today. “Not the ones that are suspect. They’ve closed their business down — and that’s unfair.” “I feel terrible for the Estrellas on a lot of different levels,” adds McCarthy. “They’ve been friends of ours for years. I feel bad for them, and for their family. I have a sense they have no control. They’ve worked very hard. And to have their business taken away, summarily, that doesn’t seem right to me. Particularly in light of the fact that no one has gotten sick.”

McCarthy says he has not been contacted by the FDA, which troubles him. Yet he’s

removing the cheeses as a precautionary measure. “I don’t want to get into a battle with the FDA. No one has told us to pull them. We don’t understand the process. They’ve closed the creamery, but no one’s communicated with the retailers.”

“I’m in the middle of reading the FDA press-release right now and still gathering information,” says Sheri LaVigne, owner of Melrose Market’s popular new cheese shop The Calf & the Kid. That release did not come to her courtesy of the FDA, but via Pacific Northwest cheese maven Tami Parr’s blog, LaVigne said. “I did see Tony [Estrella] at the market on Saturday,” where he stood cheese-less, discussing the plight of his FDA fight with University District market-goers. “I only had a little bit of his cheese left, and I pulled that on Saturday.

A selection of Estrella cheeses — on display at the Ballard Sunday Farmers Market.

For me, it’s really heart-breaking,” says LaVigne, who regularly has six or seven Estrella cheeses on hand. “They make beautiful cheese, and I really hope this doesn’t shut them down for good. That would be a real tragedy.”

Chef Jerry Traunfeld agrees with her assessment of the artisan cheeses, which often appear on his rotating Northwest cheese-plate at his restaurant Poppy, on Capitol Hill. “I really support them, and they make amazing cheeses,” Traunfeld says. But knowing nothing about the FDA action other than what he read in the Seattle Times today, he says “I’m concerned about food safety, and would never want to serve anything that is questionable. Unless I knew 100 percent that the cheese was safe, I wouldn’t serve it.”

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