I feel I should give an update on the legal position as many people have asked over the past few weeks what is happening. I have spent most of the week in tears and feel completely disillusioned by the legal process which is not doing the job intended by Food legislation. We do not live in a dictatorship despite what those running FSS seem to think; we are entitled in the 21st century to an impartial and fair hearing within a reasonable time scale to allow us to make an honest living from our small family farm where we make cheese. Our belief that it is nutritious and safe is supported by the distinguished expert microbiologists and epidemiologists on whose advice we have consistently relied since last September. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights requires the authorities’ actions against us to be taken within a reasonable timescale and there is the same requirement for judicial decisions, but these rights appear to be held in contempt.
It feels to us that the process has been strung out by the authorities through devices such as ‘reasonable expectations’, the ‘precautionary principle’ etc etc,, with unlimited financial resources and with the object of wearing us down and making us bankrupt. The legal costs we have paid to date in order to obtain judgement on the safety of our cheese have been crippling and my father, who is retired, does not have an unlimited pension – how is this a fair and just system? It seems crazy that when, at EU level, agreement on the science of E.coli cannot be reached, it is expected that the Sheriff at Lanark should be able to make judgements on E.coli pathogenicity at our expense.
We have been drip-fed redacted material relating to the investigation of the 2016 outbreak of E.coli illness by the authorities which I am not allowed to disclose. All I can say is that it only confirms my concerns with the way the investigation was conducted and its unconvincing conclusion that the cheese caused the outbreak.
The court action against us concerns our entire production of cheese made in 2016 and a small amount of Corra Linn made in 2015. The value of this was £350,000 in September last year we could not have afforded to walk away from this as I am sure would be the same for most similar businesses. This equates to over two years of my husband and my working lives; farming is not something which you can start and stop—you need to look after the sheep, tup them, lamb them, rear the lambs, milk the sheep, make the cheese, mature the cheese (which needs to be carefully looked after, for over a year in the case of some batches of Corra Linn). We had no choice but to maintain our defence as there was no evidence to condemn the cheese and force us to close our business.
Whilst we are currently making and selling (and have been since February) our ewes’ milk cheese, I feel unclear on the legality of what I am doing despite being approved by the Local Authority. The testing I am required to carry out currently would not produce a “fail” based on how last year’s cheese was condemned because Whole Genome Sequencing and STEC testing is not available in any commercial food testing laboratory in the UK. I am sending cheese and milk to France for STEC testing but not every batch; under the French system of interpretation none of 2015/2016 cheese which they tested would have failed and the cheese would have been released into the market both in France and the UK. As you can imagine this is not a comfortable place to be, and the legality for anything which does not undergo heat treatment needs to be clarified.
Seizures of our cheese happened over several months from February to April this year, rather than in September 2016 after the FAFA. Since then there have been endless procedural hearings and delays whilst the lawyers try to get a grip of the case which, currently, is estimated to take 32 days of court time for the “Proof”. Due to the potential length of Proof the respective experts were instructed to get together and discuss what they agreed and disagreed to make a submission to the court on the 4th of August, ready for another procedural hearing on the 8th August, when dates were to be set for the Proof alongside a plan of how it should be managed in the hope of reducing court time. This exercise is being dragged out and is unlikely to be successful for various reasons, ranging from complete disagreement of opinion, experts being unavailable due to holidays, or not providing dates when they would be available.