It's been a whirlwind week for the artisanal cheese makers of America.
Over the weekend, the industry learned of some January correspondence from the Food and Drug Administration that suggested the agency was banning the use of wooden shelves to age cheese, a centuries-old practice. "A sense of disbelief and distress is quickly rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community," Jeanne Carpenter, a Wisconsin cheese-industry advocate, wrote.
Cheese makers across the country took to social media to rail against the supposed ban, leading to the birth of #saveourcheese.
Then on Tuesday, after the cheese controversy had been picked up by national media (and me), the FDA released a brief statement saying it has not imposed a new policy banning wooden shelves. It did, however, plan to work with cheese makers "to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving."
Artisan cheese producers were still unnerved. So on Wednesday, the FDA released a second, longer statement addressing the confusion:
Recently, you may have heard some concerns suggesting the FDA has taken steps to end the long-standing practice in the cheesemaking industry of using wooden boards to age cheese. To be clear, we have not and are not prohibiting or banning the long-standing practice of using wood shelving in artisanal cheese.
At the start of the year, the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition cited several New York state cheese makers for their use of wooden boards. The state's agriculture asked the FDA for answers, and the agency replied that "wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized" and "could be a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms."
FDA officials said they understand how U.S. cheese makers may have misunderstood that response. "We recognize that the language used in this communication may have appeared more definitive than it should have, in light of the agency's actual practices on this issue," the agency said Wednesday.
Pathogenic microorganisms such as Listeria monocytogenes, a dangerous infection-causing bacterium that attacks the central nervous system, are a real threat to artisanal cheeses. Wooden surfaces are tougher to clean than plastic or stainless steel — and thus have a greater risk of carrying dangerous bacteria. The FDA says it has found the Listeria pathogen in more than 20 percent of inspections of artisanal cheesemakers since 2010.
The agency has no proof that those contaminations were linked to wooden boards. But it has historically been worried about their use, and plans to work with the artisanal cheese industry on best practices.
So there you go, cheese makers, it's all settled. America, your Parmigiano-Reggiano is safe — for now.