Photo via considerbardwellfarm.com
Nothing strikes ice-cold fear into the hearts of dairy manufacturers quite like the L-word—we’re talking Listeria monocytogenes. An independent cheesemaker’s worst nightmare erupted in late September 2019 for Consider Bardwell Farm, when a routine inspection of the Vermont-based farm’s processing facilities yielded a positive test for listeria in a wheel of the dairy’s signature raw-milk cheese. The finding resulted in an immediate, FDA-mandated product recall and a full overhaul of the cheesemaker’s processing plant and equipment. Though listeria had only been detected in a wheel of their raw cow’s milk Dorset cheese, Consider Bardwell also recalled its entire stock of two other cow’s and goat’s milk cheeses from Whole Foods and smaller retailers throughout New England, totalling around $200,000 in losses.
Listeria monocytogenes is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in children, pregnant individuals, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. Even otherwise healthy people can be affected by short-term symptoms like fever, headaches, nausea, and diarrhea. At the time of the September 30th recall order, no infections had been reported as a result of Consider Bardwell cheese consumption. However, the recall forced the owners of Consider Bardwell to face perhaps the harshest reality a cheesemaker can experience.
“We simply do not have the cash flow and resources to recover from the recall and sustain our business to move forward,” wrote Consider Bardwell owner Angela Miller on the company’s Facebook page. “Current funds do not allow us to continue manufacturing and selling our cheeses.” One of Consider Bardwell’s milk producers, the nearby Wayward Goose Farm, felt the sting of the recall, too. The farm could not find enough buyers for its milk when Consider Bardwell closed, and set up a GoFundMe page while dumping gallons of unused milk down the drain.
culture’s 2019 Best Cheeses issue features Consider Bardwell’s Goatlet on the cover, which went to press following the shuttering of the farm’s operations. “Thank you, Consider Bardwell,” we wrote next to the photo credit on the first page, “for paving the way for American farmstead cheesemakers.” We mourned the loss of a bold trailblazer in the world of raw milk cheese.
Listeria contamination is not limited to dairy, but is more likely to appear in unpasteurized, raw-milk products, which Consider Bardwell primarily makes. The contamination was thought to stem from the washed-rind aging cave at the farm, so any cheese that had had contact with the cave—including Dorset, Slyboro, and pasteurized Experience—was suspect. Pasteurization can kill listeria, but forgoing pasteurization is a risk raw cheese producers are willing to take in favor of creating bolder, terroir-forward cheeses.
Vermont hasn’t seen a recall due to listeria in 35 years, though “it’s probably closer to 50 years,” says E.B. Flory, the dairy section chief at the state Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. Staff at the dairy section can’t remember such a recall ever happening in recent memory.
But Consider Bardwell’s story isn’t over.
On December 3rd, Consider Bardwell announced its campaign for funding to re-open their facility in the spring and resume production. In a website post titled “With New Shoots Comes New Growth,” the farm stated that the recall and subsequent closure “resulted in our inability to make the necessary changes to the facility to be able to do this on our own.” The Vermont cheesemaking community rallied around Consider Bardwell, with Woodstock-based Vermont Farmstead Cheese offering the team space in their processing facility, Grafton Village Cheese buying their unused goat’s milk, and other goat dairies putting in bids for their herd.
“With the help of those who have enjoyed our cheeses and support our dedication to sustainable farming, we can reopen!” the farm wrote. Angela Miller hopes to continue milking her herd and begin making new cheese by spring of 2020, and may receive additional support from a “top-notch” Vermont cheesemaker who has shown interest in leasing space on the farm. Going forward, Miller is hesitant to revisit washed-rind, raw-milk cheese, as that combination is akin to playing with fire when it comes to contamination risk. “Minimizing that risk would mean pasteurizing, and that’s what I would do if I ever decided to get back into the washed-rind cheeses,” Miller said.
Other dairy producers to suffer listeria-induced setbacks in recent years include Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Columbus, OH, Miller’s Organic Farm in Bird-In-Hand, PA, and Vulto Creamery in Walton, NY. Of that list, only Vulto could not bounce back. We hope Consider Bardwell Farm joins the list of comeback kids in 2020, and will be keeping our ears open for good news!
If you would like to donate to Consider Bardwell Farm, please visit their GoFundMe page.