The government wants to kill a centuries-old process that makes artisanal cheese what it is.
The Food and Drug Administration is concerned about the public health safety of using wooden boards to age or ripen cheese. The agency recently cited several New York state cheese makers for using the boards in a recent inspection, saying the "unsanitary" practice was a violation of FDA regulations for safe food manufacturing. But New York has allowed the practice — which is common in artisanal cheese production — for years, and asked the FDA for answers.
Jeanne Carpenter, a Wisconsin cheese-industry advocate, posted the FDA's response on her blog, Cheese Underground:
Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized. The porous structure of wood enables it to absorb and retain bacteria, therefore bacteria generally colonize not only the surface but also the inside layers of wood. The shelves or boards used for aging make direct contact with finished products; hence they could be a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms in the finished products.
Cheese industry experts took the response to mean that the FDA was banning the use of wooden boards for U.S. cheesemakers. That's not the case, according to the FDA. "The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making," a spokeswoman said in a statement on Tuesday.
But the FDA is still keeping an eye on the practice. "Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings," she said. "The FDA will engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving."
Aging cheese on wooden surfaces is an age-old tradition. Cheeses are placed on wooden boards or shelves in warm, humid rooms, where they rest for several months to ripen for increased flavor. In France, more than 300,000 tons of cheese are aged on wooden boards each year. In the United States, some of the yummiest artisan cheeses have spent time on a wooden board, Carpenter writes, including last year's American Cheese Society Best in Show winner, a winnimere from Vermont.
The FDA says this ban is a clarification of existing policy, Carpenter explains, found within the Food Safety Modernization Act, a landmark 2011 bill that shifted the focus from responding to food contamination to preventing it altogether. It also gave the agency more power to conduct inspections of cheese-making facilities, something it had previously left up to the states.
The FDA is most worried about Listeria monocytogenes, a dangerous food-borne pathogen that causes the infection listeriosis, which affects the central nervous system. Cheese makers say that if proper cleaning techniques are followed, the risk of contaminating cheese with such bacteria is low. And while wood can't be cleaned as well and thoroughly as other surfaces, like plastic or stainless steel, cheese experts say the flavor wooden boards produce can't be duplicated by something else.
"The very pillar that we built our niche business on is the ability to age our cheese on wood planks, an art that has been practiced in Europe for thousands of years," Wisconsin cheese maker Chris Roelli tells Carpenter.
This story has been updated to include a statement from the FDA.