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FDA shuts down gourmet cream cheese maker

The Food and Drug Administration shut down Lifeway Foods Inc.'s cream cheese production line in Philadelphia, citing violations. Lifeway disagrees with the allegations.

Cream cheese has a special place in the hearts (and probably arteries) of Philadelphians.

Philadelphia cream cheese has never been made here. But Kraft Foods says the Philadelphia brand name was chosen in 1880 as a sign of quality.

(Kraft also makes Cheez Whiz, a critical ingredient in that other Philadelphia staple, the cheesesteak. Alas, it is also not made in Philadelphia.)

So when the Food and Drug Administration moves to shut down a cream cheese production line in Philadelphia it gets my attention.

That's what the FDA did earlier this week when it took action against Lifeway Foods Inc., of Morton Grove, Ill., citing its "extensive history of violations."

Lifeway's Philadelphia operations at 5201 Harbison Ave. had been making 10 types of cream cheese spreads.

Back in 2004, Lifeway bought Ilya's Farms Inc., which it described as a gourmet cream cheese producer, for $575,600. The operation is now known as LFI Enterprises Inc.

Lifeway, which saw its stock price fall 18 percent the day the FDA action was announced, responded that the products involved in the shutdown account for less than one half of 1 percent of Lifeway's total revenue. At $11.1 million in first-quarter sales, that would make the amount of cream cheese sales at most $54,000.

The FDA complaint said the cream cheese products had "inadequate labels," specifically citing they did not "disclose major food allergens, trans fat levels, and complete ingredient lists." The agency also said Lifeway didn't have adequate plans to ensure the "safe and sanitary processing of seafood-containing products," such as lox cream cheese.

Finally, the FDA said company officials did not document that "they monitored sanitation conditions."

Here's what the FDA's associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, Margaret O'K. Glavin had to say:

We simply can't allow companies to put the public's health at risk by not having adequate procedures and plans to produce safe food and proper labeling. We will work to take action against companies and their executives that violate the law.

Today, Lifeway issued its response disagreeing with the complaint. It quotes Lifeway CEO Julie Smolyansky:

These same products have been produced for over 15 years for a very small and select group of customers in the Philadelphia area without one consumer complaint, and while we of course respect the government's position, we do not agreed with their unfounded assertions. We know that we are and have been compliant as to any alleged violation asserted in the complaint. We would never place our customers at risk.

Be that as it may, that cream cheese production line in Philadelphia won't re-open until the FDA says so.