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Madison Market’s support of Estrella Creamery values community over health

Below is an open letter I sent to the board of directors of Madison Market, a co-op grocery store near Capitol Hill in Seattle.

Hello Board of Directors,

I am writing to express my deep concern with your active support of Estrella Creamery.  I have been a long-time supporter of yours going back to the central co-op days.  But the issues with Estrella have me currently avoiding your store.

I see two fundamental values of the co-op at odds here.  The co-op wants to support small and local food producers.  Great.  But the co-op also has a mission to provide healthy products to its shoppers.  Estrella has a very troubling trail of documentation showing that their food has not been reliably safe.  But the co-op is choosing to place more weight in the local/community value than the health value.  I find this extremely troubling.  Having a pregnant wife, I refuse to shop at the co-op until this issue is resolved satisfactorily.  In fact I am actively discouraging my friends from shopping there as well.

I have heard many weak excuses for why Estrella’s food isn’t that dangerous.  For example “nobody has been proven to have gotten sick from our food” is a claim they’ve made.  This does little to bolster their case — tracking food-borne illnesses is difficult even for large national producers where dozens of illnesses help mark the trail.  Additionally it demonstrates naivete in how risks should be assessed.  It is analogous to saying “I never wear a seatbelt but I haven’t been hurt in a car accident.”

I’ve also heard arguments to the effect that people should have the right to choose to eat high quality but dangerous food.  That is a fine argument.  But it goes directly against the co-op’s mission to provide healthy food.  I loved the fact that the co-op avoids stocking food with high-fructose corn syrup and trans-fats.  I thought that by shopping with you I could spend less time worrying about what I was putting into my family’s bodies, even if it cost me a bit more.  Your vocal support of Estrella has destroyed my trust in your store to put my health first.  Clearly healthfulness is just one of several competing priorities for you.  I wish it weren’t.  Health is far more important to me than supporting the artisan lifestyle.

Please recognize that your own stated values are in conflict here.  Whether you realize it or not, your store is at a turning point in defining itself.  You are likely to lose customers either way you decide.  But I strongly encourage you to do so deliberately, with a sense of purpose.  Selfishly, so that I may again have a great store in the neighborhood that I trust, I hope you choose health.

Sincerely,

Leo Dirac

  1. Leo, I completely agree. I sent the following letter to the board in December. I haven’t had an official reply, and intend to follow up this month.

    -Noah

    ===

    To the board:

    While shopping at the Central Co-op a few weeks ago, I noticed signs at the cash registers soliciting donations to support Estrella Creamery. I was curious about the issue, and did a fair bit of research about the case, in order to understand if it was just the FDA being heavy-handed towards a small producer, or if there was more to the story. Among other things, I read the FDA report, the Central Register, and other commentary. I also spoke with a friend of mine who worked for Beecher’s to get his perspective on the issue. After all of this research, I am very disappointed in the Co-op’s choice to support Estrella at this time. Estrella has established a long record of unsafe practices. Their facilities and products have tested positive for dangerous bacteria many times. I am frustrated that my co-op is going out of their way to support this business.

    The justification given by Capie Melton in the Central Register ( http://madisonmarket.com/index.php?page=natural_news ) is ” we choose to support them in developing stronger controls.” The article also states “Central Co-op is seeking contributions designed to offset the family’s legal expenses.” The time for supporting stronger controls was in February and March, when the Listeria bacteria was first found, not eight months later, in October and November, when they have demonstrated an unwillingness or inability to improve their process and sanitation.

    It’s also disingenuous to refer to the “absence of illness linked to the consumption of their products.” The lack of a proven link in no way demonstrates that no illness has ever been caused by infected Estrella products. The co-op’s community includes children, elderly people, pregnant women, and others with compromised or particularly susceptible immune systems (including some who do not know they are compromised). These populations are particularly vulnerable to Listeria infection. If someone became ill, or if a pregnant woman had a miscarriage, there’s no way to guarantee it could have been traced back to the source.

    My friend who worked at Beecher’s said they wouldn’t carry Estrella products because they didn’t trust the safety of the Estrella procedures and facilities. Another friend once purchased cheese from Estrella at a farmer’s market. When she discovered it was rancid, she took it back to alert them; they weren’t interested in hearing about it.

    I wouldn’t mind supporting a business that clearly was working towards improvement. However, I’m not interested in my co-op supporting a business that has failed to make improvements, has endangered customers, and is now facing a legal battle. What if they win? Does Central Co-op want to sell products from a creamery where they don’t regularly wash their hands, where there are insects crawling on the curing cheese, where the tools that come into contact with shipping product haven’t been washed, and where the surfaces that come into contact with the product aren’t sanitary?

    When the co-op choses to support an unsafe supplier, it undermines my faith in the ability of the co-op to make good judgments around health and sanitation, and causes me to question the safety of the other foods that the co-op chooses to sell. It casts the co-op in the role of supporting a producer based purely on size, with no regard for the quality and safety of their product, and no regard for the health of their customers and community.

    At this point the co-op’s support of Estrella amounts to a subsidy of a failing business. While donations are entirely voluntary, the solicitation opportunity is still a huge subsidy from the co-op that many other high-quality, safe creameries will not be receiving. If Estrella cannot operate safely, they have not justified this level of extra support from the co-op. It is in direct violation of the co-op’s stated mission of “community accountability.” We, the undersigned member-owners request that the co-op immediately remove the solicitation signs and provide no further support to Estrella on behalf of the co-op until they have demonstrated a willingness and ability to consistently produce a safe product.

    Signed, member-owners:
    Noah Iliinsky
    [14 other owners co-signed]

    References:
    http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm224990.htm
    http://www.fda.gov/downloads/AboutFDA/CentersOffices/ORA/ORAElectronicReadingRoom/UCM231080.pdf

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