Manitoba chefs giving up on traditional Trappist-style cheese, blame costly provincial roadblocks
Couple will make cheese using same process, but with non-homogenized, pasteurized organic milk
Two Winnipeg chefs attempting to carry on a centuries-old practice of making unpasteurized Trappist cheese say they're being strong-armed by the Manitoba government out of making what they call a "Prairie tradition."
Rachel Isaak and Dustin Peltier are co-owners of a local catering company called Loaf and Honey. They were also taught how to make the cheese in 2017 by Brother Albéric, a Trappist monk, who was at that time the last person in North America making the cheese using traditional Trappist techniques.
"We have done everything we can think of to avoid getting to this point but unfortunately, we are left with no choice," they said in a Facebook post Thursday.
Isaak and Peltier say they've lost tens of thousands of dollars producing the raw-milk cheese because of hurdles imposed by Manitoba Agriculture.
"We have spent two years and over $20,000 following the department's directions of ordering costly tests from labs with questionable outcomes," the Facebook post said.
Of 131 batches of cheese, 80 or more were rejected by the health department and had to be destroyed, they said. The cheese was worth upwards of $50,000.
Peltier said the rules imposed by the province are becoming increasingly more strict and costly, making them impossible to keep up with. He believes the rules aren't a question of public health, but more about the government's liability.
Peltier told CBC News his business is simply not in a position to assume the financial risk of making the cheese in the strict Trappist tradition anymore, nor are they able to continue fighting for artisanal foods in the province.
"We let our heart and our emotions dictate running and trying to stay in it longer than financially we should have as a business," he said.
"We're at our breaking point."
From now on, Peltier said he and Isaak will make cheese using the same process they were before, but will make the cheese with non-homogenized, pasteurized organic milk from a nearby farm — which means the cheese will taste different and won't, technically, be the Trappist-style cheese they learned to make from Brother Albéric.
"We're devastated," said Peltier.
A spokesperson said in a statement Manitoba Agriculture is responsible for overseeing food processed in provincially permitted establishments. This may require testing the food, which is done by a third-party accredited lab.
Milk that has not been pasteurized poses great risk to consumers and has been linked to food borne illnesses, the spokesperson said.
"A consistent, validated production process must be followed, which includes lab testing at a third-party accredited lab," the spokesperson said.
"If a producer is able to meet all the appropriate standards and consistently produce a safe product, they are free to sell their product to the public."
Isaak and Peltier said they need to regroup and earn back some of their losses before they can try advocating for the unpasteurized version of their cheese again.
"We started this company to preserve Trappist cheese and the lifetime of work Brother Albéric did. As much as it was a business, it was also meant to preserve a part of Manitoba's history," Peltier said.
The cheesemakers aren't the only food processors who say they have been affected by the province's stringent standards.
Clinton Cavers, who owns Harborside Farms in Pilot Mound, Man., had to give up a passion project making award-winning pasture-raised pork prosciutto, saying the regulatory hurdles he had to jump were numerous and costly.
In 2013, five years' worth of prosciutto he had produced was confiscated by the province, labelled unfit for human consumption. He said he was baffled because it had won the Great Manitoba Food Fight, an annual contest put on by the provincial government, just before that.
"The difficulty we had was trying to fit the regulations they had for large-scale food production into artisanal, more traditional methods for food production that were proven safe for hundreds, if not thousands of years in other cultures," Cavers said.
"It didn't allow us the room to develop methods that would fit their model and it didn't give us the time or ability because of expense to prove our methods were safe," he said.
"We have since abandoned that project because it was too difficult to meet the standards they required."
Unpasteurized products thriving elsewhere
Food production rules can vary from province to province.
Quebec produces no fewer than 16 raw-milk cheeses and has many artisanal cheese producers.
Artisanal cheese is also a significant industry in Nova Scotia, Ontario and B.C., and is a growing industry elsewhere in the country.
Cavers said Manitoba is making it difficult for small-scale makers to market their products locally.
"We felt we had a missed opportunity for growing the artisanal food market in the province," he said.
Peltier too says the rules here are hurting businesses like his.
"The department of agriculture has brought us to our knees," he said.
With files from Aidan Geary