Nanny State

FDA to Save Us From Scourge of Wood-Aged Artisanal Cheese


Andrew McFarlane/Flickr

The latest foodmakers to face destruction from the Food and Drug Adminstration's (FDA) need to regulate all the things: artisanal cheesemakers. As part of a new push to enforce certain aspects of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), passed in 2011, the agency announced that it will no longer allow cheesemakers to use wooden boards in the aging process. 

"A sense of disbelief and distress is quickly rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community," notes Jeanne Carpenter at Cheese Underground, a blog for artisanal cheesemakers. Traditionally, the FDA has mostly deferred cheese inspections to the states. But the FDA recently inspected several New York cheesemakers and cited them for using wooden surfaces to age cheeses. 

The New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets' Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services, which (like most every state in the U.S., including Wisconsin), has allowed this practice, reached out to FDA for clarification on the issue. A response was provided by Monica Metz, Branch Chief of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition's (CFSAN) Dairy and Egg Branch.

In the response, Metz stated that the use of wood for cheese ripening or aging is considered an unsanitary practice by FDA, and a violation of FDA's current Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations. 

According to Metz, the use of wooden shelves for aging cheese runs counter to FDA requirements stipulating "all plant equipment and utensils shall be so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable." In the FDA's estimation, there is no possible way that wooden shelves or boards can be adequately cleaned and sanitized. From Metz:

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.

The fact that wood's porousness allows it to retain bacteria is actually one reason why cheesemakers use this method. Contra the 19th century, not all bacteria is bad. Cheese, yogurt, kombucha, tempeh, and other foods containing live active cultures can actually be incredibly beneficial for humans' immune system and overall health. But what about the bad bacteria—is there any validity to the FDA's claim that bad bacteria can't be properly purged from wooden boards?

The University of Tennessee Forest Extension says that while "some have suggested that it is 'just common sense' that a porous material like wood would be harder to keep clean than plastic," testing doesn't necessarily support this assumption. The Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research compiled research on the subject here—there's been a lot of it from France, unsurprisingly—and it suggests that proper cleaning and sanitization methods can sufficiently wipe out bacteria from various kinds of wooden boards. A 1992 study showed those using wooden cutting boards at home were less than half as likely as average to contract salmonellosis, while those using synthetic (plastic or glass) cutting boards were about twice as likely to do so. 

Many of the most awarded and well-respected American cheeses are aged on wooden boards, according to Cheese Underground. "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 cheesemaker Chris Roelli—who developed his cheese recipes specifically to be aged on wooden boards—told the blog.

Not allowing American cheesemakers to use this practice puts them "at a global disadvantage because the flavor produced by aging on wood can not be duplicated. This is a major game changer for the dairy industry in Wisconsin, and many other states."

Cheesemakers importing to the United States will be subject to the same wooden board ban, which in effect means we'll just miss out on a lot of cheese imports. The European Union—not generally known to fuck around on food safety—is totally cool with the use of wood boards in aging cheese (as is Canada). In fact, certain types of cheese must be aged on wood in order to get the designation (Comte, Beaufort, Reblochon). 

Cheesemakers aren't the only ones to come under increased scrutiny and needless micromanagement from the FDA as it attempts to "establish new prevention-oriented standards" for the "new public health mandate" the FSMA created. Earlier this year, it suggested that breweries giving spent grains to local farmers for livestock feed may have to process and package these grains first—a proposal that drew a loud and sustained response from brewers, farmers, and lawmakers. There's never been a known contamination problem with the brewery-to-farm spent grain sharing.

UPDATE: The FDA announced Tuesday that it's not banning wood-aged cheese

For more on FDA meddling with artisanal cheese makers, see this Reason TV video from last summer:

h/t Greg Miller