State says markets can't sell unwrapped sliced cheese

A brick of wrapped cheddar cheese / photo: Alex Dunbar

Farmer's markets are all about fresh fruit and fresh vegetables but at most markets across the state, new rules mean all the cheese will now be pre-packaged. To sell freshly sliced cheese, sellers would have to bring a three basin sink with hot and cold water to open air markets.

"It's not the same. I like mine fresh," said Denise Spuches as she shopped at Syracuse's Regional Market.

At Buttercup Cheese in Central Square, Molly Buchanen and her husband spend most of their week pre-packaging fresh cheese for markets. She says many customers would rather have the cheese sliced to order.

"Especially with cheddars, the closest to the time it was cut off the block, that's the freshest the cheese is," said Buchanen.

Lyle Burnett stopped selling cheese at Farmer's Markets when the state said he would have to pre-package it. Burnett says New York state's rules made that part of his business impossible.

"The state ought to get their nose out. I'm telling you right now - I don't go for it," said Burnett.

The Regional Market in Syracuse stopped cheese slicing on site about four years ago due to county health rules. Market Director Ben Vitale said the market has to protect its reputation of providing a safe environment.

"It affects every vendor here at the Regional Market so we've always been leaning towards the more stringent rules," said Vitale.

State Assemblyman Will Barclay says he doesn't understand the new rule and wants to know why State Ag and Markets put the rule in place.

"So we're hoping to get to the bottom and find out and if there isn't any reasonable excuse or if it seems crazy then of course we're going to fight to get it taken off as best we can," said Barclay.

Earlier Coverage:

The New York State Agriculture Department is telling farmers to stop cutting the cheese, literally.

A rarely-enforced law that has been on the books for decades says dairy farmers who sell hand-crafted cheese at farmer's markets must pre-wrap it before its sold. Under a new interpretation of food-processing regulations by the state, vendors at open-air stands must sell pre-wrapped cheese rather than cutting off a wedge from a wheel of cheddar or gouda.

State Assemblyman Will Barclay of Pulaski says he's irked and disappointed to hear the Department of Agriculture is regulating how farmers slice their cheese at farmers markets.

"This news is irksome. Cheese producers and farmers have enough to contend with from the state," Barclay said in a statement issued to CNY Central. "This rule makes little sense. Wouldn't consumers prefer cheese be cut upon its sale, rather than pre-wrapped in plastic, refrigerated and then sold at a date to be determined? That is what grocery stores are for."

Farmers have complained wrapping the cheese will change its taste.

"The cheese quality goes down the drain within 12 hours," said Jody Somers of Dancing Ewe Farm in Granville, N.Y. "Our customers are really unhappy with the whole plastic pre-packaged cheese."

"Cheese and fresh produce at the markets must be sold that day, in many cases. Cutting, pre-wrapping, refrigerating and storing for later can take away from the freshness and quality of the cheese as well," said Barclay.

The only way around it is for cheese farmers to obtain a license to process foods, similar to those used by delis. It would require sinks and hot water, which would be practically impossible at a farmers market.

"This regulation adds to the farmers' load," Barclay said. "This is just one more example of bureaucratic nonsense that bothers farmers and businesses and prevents them from doing what they set out to do, which is make a living.

For now, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture and Markets says the rule regarding open-air cheese sales has been on the books since the 1970s. Only recently, cheese vendors say, did inspectors decide to enforce it. And they say it's hurting their bottom line.

"Who wants to buy pre-packaged artisanal cheese?" said Eran Wajswol of Valley Shepherd Creamery in Long Valley, N.J., who sells at several New York farmer's markets. "For us it was what I call a game ender."

Barclay says he's looking into whether there's a legitimate reason behind the state rule. He's still waiting to hear back from the State Ag and Markets to find out what their logic is on the issue.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.