Something's Rotten in Tillamook

"Oregon Coast Cheese" is actually made in Wisconsin.

Last Friday, Pioneer Courthouse Square was a dairy junkie's dream, as Portlanders swarmed over the red bricks to gobble up free samples and penny ice-cream cones from the Tillamook County Creamery Association. To celebrate the company's 95th anniversary, Gov. Ted Kulongoski declared July 30, 2004, Tillamook Cheese Day.

"We love Tillamook," says Sharon Kleine, who brought her visiting grandson to the event. "They're us. They're Oregonians. And they make great products." Like many proud Oregonians, she takes origin into account when making purchases.

What few people know, however, is that some of the company's cheeses come from Wisconsin, despite a label identifying them as "Oregon Coast Cheese."

Here's what's up: Four years ago, Tillamook bought the Bandon Cheese company and moved production of its cheeses to Tillamook. But, as WW has learned, its three organic cheeses, which had been made in Bandon prior to Tillamook's purchasing the plant, were outsourced to a facility in Wisconsin.

The cheese is made according to the original Bandon recipe specifications before traveling to Tillamook in 42-pound blocks via refrigerated trucks to be graded, aged, cut up, wrapped, labeled and shipped for distribution throughout the Northwest. But it's still made in Wisconsin, from Midwest milk.

That news left a sour taste in Laura Carey's mouth. The 48-year-old Portlander makes a point of buying fresh, local goods. When stopped in the parking lot outside Wild Oats in Southwest Portland and shown a block of Bandon organic cheese, Carey assumed it was made in Bandon. "Oregon Coast Cheese," she said, pointing to the label. Nowhere, even in fine print, does it say it's made in Wisconsin, a fact Carey described as "deceitful."

Federal law bans companies from misleading consumers about where a product originates. Tillamook spokeswoman Christie Lincoln says "Oregon Coast Cheese" is a slogan used for brand recognition, not to signify the product's origin.

In April 2003, Tillamook changed Bandon's official name to "Oregon Coast Foods," which is the name that appears on the back label.

Jan Margosian, a spokeswoman for the Oregon attorney general's office, says no official complaints have been filed, but she concedes that it is confusing. "This is fuzzy," she says, and now that the name of the company is Oregon Coast Foods, it gets even fuzzier."

The fuzziness doesn't sit well with the folks at Food Front in Northwest Portland, who assumed the organic Bandon cheese they were selling came from Oregon. Finance manager Lee Lancaster says the store, which emphasizes detailed labeling, will probably put a sign up next to the product to clarify where it comes from.

Many national distributors balk at the idea of revealing who or where their products come from, Lancaster says, but "a lot of our customers do care and want to buy locally."

Lincoln says Tillamook cannot produce the organic cheese locally because it is unable to buy enough organic milk in Oregon--a claim that Janice and Larry Neilson find hard to believe.

The Neilsons own and operate Fraga Farm in Sweet Home, one of the 19 organic dairy farms currently certified by Oregon Tilth. "I think it's terrible that they're acting like it's still made in Oregon," Janice says. "I'm sure it's all about making more money. It's false advertising."

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.