Denis Nadeau has a simple complaint about what Ontario’s tangle of regulations does to the cheese he makes at his facility in Kapuskasing.
“It turns it into Velveeta,” he says bluntly.
Nadeau says Ontario’s rules are made with massive, industrial-sized producers of cheese in mind, producers for whom a single failure could potentially spoil food distributed to thousands of stores and put huge numbers of people at risk of foodborne illnesses. Caution, in that situation, is warranted.
But Nadeau’s company, Fromagerie Kapuskoise, makes less than 30 tonnes of cheese a year (Ontario produced 120,000 tonnes in 2016), and he’s still finding buyers the old-fashioned way: by carrying samples from store to store. Nadeau is an evangelist for his product. Meeting a reporter in downtown Toronto for an interview, he cuts off samples of his various cheeses and hands them over wrapped (for lack of anything else handy) in the day’s newspaper.
Late last year, Nadeau laid out his case in person to Jeff Leal, minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs. (The meeting was arranged with the help of Nadeau’s MPP, Timmins–James Bay New Democrat Gilles Bisson.) At every step of the way, he says, Ontario requires cheesemakers to go to greater expense, and satisfy more burdensome regulations, than other jurisdictions, be it Quebec, Vermont, or France.
It starts, he says, with rules regarding the construction of cheesemaking facilities, which require the use of stainless steel in situations where other jurisdictions would allow wood. His aging room — where pressed curds become cheese, over time — must also be kept at positive air pressure, so that when a door is opened air will blow out instead of bringing in bacteria. But that requires complex and expensive air-conditioning equipment.
“Basically, they treat an artisanal cheese factory like we’re just an industrial plant in miniature.”
Then there are the rules about transportation and storage — which require the cheese to be held just a few degrees above zero, and, Nadeau says, suppress the flavours that are the primary selling point for artisanal cheese in the first place. Hence his comment about Velveeta-fication.
Nadeau cites research showing that cheese is generally a safer commodity than regulators have believed, capable of surviving storage and transportation without being chilled. “Real cheese isn’t dangerous,” he says.
Government regulators are understandably wary of anything that could even be mistaken for weakening public safety rules, but Leal’s office says they’re taking the issue seriously and discussing it within the ministry.
“I indicated to [the NDP’s Bisson] that I would review, with the help of my ministry, the issues raised around red tape, transportation and the storage of milk products for making artisanal cheese in Ontario,” Leal wrote in a statement to TVO.org. “There is a great opportunity, particularly in northern Ontario, to continue to grow our artisanal cheese market.”
The provincial government is looking for ways to encourage the growth of food industries in particular, and for ways to reduce the burden of regulations on businesses in general. And there’s a broader awareness in government that many regulations implemented in the past may have been appropriate when the only concerns were making food cheap, abundant, and safe, but may be out of place in an era when more people also want locally sourced, small-batch food.
TVO.org spoke with several other artisanal cheesemakers around Ontario; they each had their own criticisms about the government's role in their work, though not necessarily the same as Nadeau's.
Jeff Fenwick owns Back 40 Artisan Cheese in Mississippi Station, eastern Ontario. He also says the regulations are a difficulty, especially considering he’s half of the entire paid workforce of his company (many artisanal cheesemakers rely on family, and often unpaid or low-paid help) but notes that there's some variability in how the rules are applied, as well.
“It can be a burden, but it depends on your inspector,” says Fenwick. “[Some inspectors] are willing to work with you. It’s part of the game really.”
Shep Ysselstein of Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese in Oxford County agrees. “My experience, with [the ministry], I think the rules are kind of written with large companies in mind, but they were helpful and willing to work with us,” he told TVO.org. “In terms of the different governments I had to work with for this — municipal, provincial, federal — the province was the best.” Fenwick and Ysselstein both said they’d had more difficulty working with their local municipalities dealing with issues like zoning their facilities than they’d had with the provincial agriculture ministry. (The federal government regulates matters such as interprovincial transportation.)
Walter Schepp of Thunder Oak Cheese, in Thunder Bay, did have a complaint about cuts to the ministry, saying staff were no longer stationed in Thunder Bay but instead now fly up from southern Ontario.
“We used to have a representative here who helped out — we used to have an inspector here,” Schepp says. He wouldn’t comment on the relative burden of regulations elsewhere, but said it wouldn’t surprise him if they were lighter in Quebec. “Quebec has always taken better care of their farmers than we do.”
Nadeau thinks a simplification of the rules for small producers would allow more people getting into the business, boosting the craft cheese sector growth and global prominence Ontario wines have seen in recent years.
It would also create more competition for his own business, but he says he’s not worried about that.
“We’re going to make a lot of money, we’re going to pay off all our debts because the government makes it hard for new competitors to come in,” he says. “But our dream’s not to become rich. We want to start a movement.”
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