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.

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