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The Inside Story on How the FDA Kicked Off a National Uproar from Cheese Makers

Who knew wooden boards would set off such angry response.

Earlier this June, a food fight erupted surrounding the Food and Drug Administration’s regulation of aged cheese. Specifically, whether it allowed aging cheese on wooden shelves (as opposed to plastic or stainless steel). “ FDA May Destroy American Artisan Cheese Industry,” screamed a headline at Forbes.

As it turns out, the FDA regulatory hiccup wasn’t news. Or it shouldn’t have been, until the media, Facebook and even the American Cheese Society made it so. Despite that, the controversy that resulted provides an excellent opportunity to look at current science and traditional cheesemaking practices and compare them to current laws.

Here’s what happened. Back in January (yes, January!), the FDA replied to a question by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services with a letter that, according to the FDA, was “not a policy statement.” The letter stated:

“The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP requirements, which require that 'all plant equipment and utensils shall be so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable, and shall be properly maintained.' 21 CFR 110.40(a). 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.”

In other words, it’s not OK to age cheese on wooden boards. As it turns out, many types of cheese are aged on wooden boards. For some cheeses, a cheesemaker has wiggle room to choose whether or not to use wood, but for others, aging on wooden boards is required by the cheese’s standard of identity.

Fast-forward six months, and on June 9, Forbes picked this up and it went viral. The American Cheese Society issued a statement on June 10, noting that “Today’s cheesemakers—large and small, domestic and international—continue to use this material for production due to its inherent safety, unique contribution to the aging and flavor-development process, and track record of safety as part of overall plant hygiene and good manufacturing practices. No foodborne illness outbreak has been found to be caused by the use of wood as an aging surface.”

That day, Gianaclis Caldwell, cheesemaker, author of Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking, and member of the American Cheese Society’s Regulatory and Academic committee, wrote up a blog post defending aging cheese on wood, complete with a bibliography of scientific studies backing its safety.

And, on the same day, the FDA responded that “The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA [Food Safety Modernization Act] requirement in effect that addresses this issue. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.”

With that, Forbes declared, “ FDA Backs Down In Fight Over Aged Cheese.”

But if the FDA is to be believed, it never backed down because it never attempted to take on artisanal cheesemakers in the first place. In fact, it came back again on June 11 with a second clarification, this time explaining it has never cracked down on anyone solely for using wooden shelves. Really, it is only after cheese containing the pathogen Listeria monocytogenes. And it “welcome[s] this open dialogue” about the safety of wooden shelves.

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