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

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.

David Gumpert, author of the book Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Food Rights, sees it a different way. On his blog, he explains why he believes this latest dustup is actually part of the FDA’s 10-year war on artisanal cheese.

“The war started in 2004, shortly after the arrival of John Sheehan as head of the FDA’s Division of Plant and Dairy Food Safety. He had arrived from corporate cheese manufacturer Leprino… Sheehan declared in the 2004 Food Safety Magazine article that the FDA’s 55-year practice of allowing the production and sale of raw milk cheese was a safety hazard,” Gumpert wrote.

While the FDA is no fan of raw milk in its fluid form, it allows raw milk cheeses so long as they are aged for 60 days or more. But Sheehan felt that “60-day aging is largely ineffectual as a means of reducing levels of certain pathogens in cheeses.”

Gumpert believes that the FDA continued to publish studies or announce pilot testing programs that would increase regulations on raw milk cheeses. “Throughout all these probes and studies and threats and inspections by the FDA against artisanal cheese, the agency has yet to come out with any changes in its rules” until this latest incident over wooden boards. “Of course, that’s not the end of the war on artisanal cheese,” wrote Gumpert. “The wood boards initiative was just another probe, another test. It’s just the latest assault in a ten-year war. But absolutely not the last.”

 Gumpert sees this as a “war against artisanal cheeses” by the FDA and “part of a push by corporate cheese manufacturers to eliminate ever-more-serious competition from the upstarts.”

As an artisanal cheesemaker, Caldwell takes a more charitable view of the FDA, acknowledging that it has an overwhelming task in keeping our food safe. “I don't really blame the FDA,” she said. “I think it comes back to the consumer to take responsibility for our food choices too, not to live blindly, not to go to the store and assume everything is safe. That's where eating local comes in. It's easy to say oh we're being over-regulated but we need to work hard to give them reason to change those. I'm not trying to encourage feeling sorry for the FDA but it's a bureaucracy we've created and we have to be willing to help them change.”

She also notes that “good manufacturing practices that have been defined by the government grew up around an industrial type of process that existed then. Cheesemaking at this type of scale had basically died out. So it's really not a big surprise that their paradigm for what good food practices look like do not really include” practices like aging cheese on wooden boards.

So, that said, why is cheese aged on wooden boards, and is it safe or not?

“There are two basic ways of making cheese,” explains Caldwell. “One involves enzymes that coagulate the milk and bacteria that ferment it. And the other involves acid that coagulates the milk and heat that assists it. So both involve removing the moisture and adding acid to preserve it and add flavor.”

Cheeses made with the latter method include cheeses like paneer, ricotta and queso fresco. But the aged cheeses at the center of this controversy are those that fall in the former category.

After the milk has been fermented by microbes and coagulated using enzymes (rennet), the cheesemaker separates the solids, curds, from the liquid portion of the milk, whey. “The aging process is no longer usually much fermentation but it's the breakdown of primarily proteins by the enzymes left behind by the starter bacteria, by the rennet, and by the bacteria that are usually in raw milk that don't necessarily ferment the milk but help develop things later that can provide the flavor profile,” Caldwell notes.

As the cheese ages, molds and yeasts grow on the outside of the cheese, the rind, and develop the flavor inside the cheese. “View it like a garden,” says Caldwell. For cheese, “in the vat you're planting the seeds and then you have to grow and weed and maintain the garden.” Only the “weeds” the FDA worries about are pathogenic bacteria like Listeria monocytogenes.

Caldwell and other cheesemakers like wood shelves because they “allow for air exchange, the moisture can go in and out of the wood and maintain the humidity in the room.” Colin McGrath, the cheesemaker at Sprout Creek Farm in New York, also notes the long tradition of using wood shelves to age cheese, and the requirement to age cheese on wood shelves included in the standard of identity for some cheeses. “It would be a great loss for domestic artisan producers to not be able to use wood in their production,” he says.

Both Caldwell and the FDA referenced the same 2011 study of Listeria on wooden shelves used for aging cheese. In the study, the scientists aged cheese on wooden shelves and then sterilized one set of shelves using steam. They inoculated all of the shelves with Listeria and then measured the amount of Listeria over time. The Listeria flourished on the sterile shelves. However, on the shelves that had a microbial biofilm left there from the ripening cheese, the Listeria numbers remained stable or even decreased. The study concluded, “This study clearly demonstrates that the resident microbial biofilm living on wooden ripening shelves displayed a stable anti-Listeria effect under experimental ripening conditions. This anti-Listeria effect was efficient on two strains of L. monocytogenes and seemed not to be influenced by the different farmhouse origins of the cheeses ripened on these shelves.”

However, the FDA took issue with the fact that, after 12 days of incubation, there was still some Listeria present on the wood at all. “The mere fact that L. monocytogenes survived in any wood sample studied should be of concern. A single surviving L. monocytogenes cell may grow and multiply and thus serve to contaminate cheese,” wrote the FDA in its January letter to New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services.

However, the study does not show whether metal or plastic shelves fare worse or better than wood, nor did it reflect the fate of wood shelves following the sanitizing process cheesemakers perform regularly.

In fact, a 2010 study cited by both Caldwell and the FDA concluded, “the use of wooden shelves does not affect the hygienic safety of cheeses if such shelves are in good repair and are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized by heat treatment. Therefore, there is no reason to replace wood employed in cheese ripening processes with other materials.”


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