The Government Is Cracking Down on Artisanal Cheese

And U.S. cheese makers are not happy.

National Journal
Marina Koren
June 10, 2014, 1:20 a.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
Allison Janney Takes to the Real White House Podium
16 minutes ago

Carolyn Kaster/AP

When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
42 minutes ago

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
1 hours ago

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
2 hours ago

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
5 hours ago

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”