Relax, There’s No Federal Ban on Artisanal Cheese

The FDA says it’s not prohibiting the use of wooden shelves to age cheese. But it’s still not happy about it.

National Journal
Marina Koren
June 12, 2014, 11:44 a.m.

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.

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