FDA

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

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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

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  1. “What’s so special about the cheesemakers?”
    “Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.”

    1. Blessed are the Greek. Aparently, he’s going to inherit the Earth.” “Did anyone catch his name?”

  2. Precautionary Principle Smash!

  3. I just sent this link into H&R, beating the posting. I guess I wont get a hat tip though.

    Up next: Beer and bourbon aged on wood.

    Fuckity fuck fuck fuck.

    1. Posted it last night, no one noticed.

    2. And wine…though I prefer my whites to be aged in stainless steel.

      1. I prefer my beer from stainless too.

        But lots of people like the barrel aged stuff. Im not a fan.

        1. What does Coors use?

          1. Horse trough

            1. Oh, I thought it was one of these things.

            2. Whatever it is, it’s delicious.

              1. Coors is delicious? You like slightly off water?

                1. I like anything Sam Elliot tells me to like.

                2. When I can’t get Coors, I just drink the water out of a can of corn.

        2. Had a bourbon barrel-aged porter not long ago. Tres bien as a dessert beer.

          That is all.

      2. Sourdough bread too I presume.

      3. Chablis? Sure. Sancerre? You bet. Chassagne? No way.

  4. “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.

    Everyone thinks they’re safe, that it can’t possibly happen to them.

    1. “As part of a new push to enforce certain aspects of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)”

      You misspelled FYTW.

    2. I doubt the cheese industry thought they were safe — they have been dealing with a fuckload of new rules for a while now, but they probably didn’t think any rule could possibly be THIS stupid.

    3. First they came for the stinky unpasteurized raw goat milk ch?vre, but I said nothing because I abhor stinky unpasteurized raw goat milk ch?vre…

    4. And I’m betting that 90% of those artisanal cheesemakers voted for the god-king whose administration is enacting these rules.

  5. Doubled Velveeta rations for everyone!

    1. Velveeta does have its uses, but eating it more than 3 or 4 times a year is dangerous.

  6. First they came for the wooden boards for making cheese . . .

    We must save the infected wine barrels that makes Flanders Red Ale so fucking awesome!

    1. Yeah, you can have my Cantillon Gueuze when you take it from my cold, dead hands.

      1. Gueuze is next on my list of things to try.

  7. If you like your cheese you can keep it…

  8. Contra the 19th century, not all bacteria is bad.

    The FDA: 19th century rules for a 21st century world.

  9. “You shall only eat Kraft processed cheese.”

    1. “Processed Cheese Food Product”

      1. The only true word in this phrase is “processed”.

  10. 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.

    This is why we need not fear the chopstick-using Chinese.

    1. And as the 1992 study linked above pointed out (if its the one I remember from back then), there are things in the wood that KILLS the bacteria, which is why wood cutting boards are safer than plastic, despite the porous structure.

      1. I remember that. But it’s not like the FDA will admit error.

        1. It’s not just that. FDA can’t admit USDA ever got to the truth, and vice versa.

      2. Well, similar reasons to why egg washing is probably more dangerous than not egg washing, but the FDA requires it nonetheless.

  11. The FDA bans a lot of things allowed by Europe, from cheese to drugs. The big thing here is, as noted, power shifting from the states to the feds.

    I know the bill was signed in January 2011 as part of the lame duck session after the 2010 elections but before the new Congress took office, after having passed in 2009 but held up by Sen. Coburn (since the Senate-originated version had a tax in it). It’s an example of all the great things our government could be doing if it weren’t for those Republicans, naturally.

  12. NEED MOAR REGULASHUNZ

  13. So, all we have to look forward to is Soylent Gray?

  14. I’m wondering how the artisanal cheese makers lean politically? I would guess they would be in favor of more regulations but apparently they think this is a bad idea.

    1. They are leaning way forward right now.

    2. All progressives are for progressive policies that don’t directly affect them.

    3. Depends, some of them are small businesses.

      The initial FSMA was generally supported by large businesses, opposed by small. I believe a waiver for sufficiently small businesses was added as an amendment at some point that made a few switch sides.

  15. And then the Top.Men. came for the artisanal mayonnaise makers.

    1. I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark this weekend while I was puttering around the house. I made sure I was paying attention during the penultimate top. men. scene, though.

  16. 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 porous structure also allows wood to absorb bleach which kills bacteria dead.

    1. Of course, the cheese might actually need the bacteria to reach its awesomeness.

      I know some beers do…especially the sours.

      1. You mean the naturally occurring bacteria found in wood?

        How about fairy unicorns? You know the fly sized horses with wings…they live in wood also. Do they help?

  17. So serious question here:if cheese hadnt existed for thousands if years, and someone had just invented it, would the FDA allow it? “Oh, you want to mix spoiled milk, yeast, and pureed cow stomach together and let it rot for a few months…”

    1. “But it’s gluten free.”

      “Approved!”

  18. Actually the diverse microbial population is key to the style of cheese and also makes it safer as the good bugs drive away the bad ones. Same goes in wine, much to the chagrin of ultra clean food oriented people at UC Davis. In Ohio it technically is not legal for wine (also beer and spirits) to be aged with wood (Oak) as alcoholic beverages are not approved for contact with wood in Ohio Health codes. That is only if the winery (or other) would wholesale the wine. I have given up wholesale to fight this nonsense: http://www.FreeTheWineries.com or http://www.facebook.com/FreeTheWineries

  19. First they came for the Artisanal Cheese, then they came for the Artisanal Mayo.

    Somewhere Cass Sunstein is smiling.

  20. Thank you. Upton Sinclair.

    You communist asshole. Hope you’re happy.

  21. My shitty day just got shittier. Fuck it, I’m officially dead inside. Going full sociopath and starting an organized crime syndicate based on bootleg, wood aged cheeses. Maybe I could base my operation in Mexico and collude with drug cartels to smuggle it into the U.S. via drug mules. Cheese mules, providing dairy goods with the distinct aroma of unwashed ass. Savor the flavor.

  22. The FDA needs to fuck off,
    let people buy food products at their own risk, if you are afraid of the cheez then don’t bloody buy the cheez!

  23. Just remember, dairy owners: the black market (of artisanal, wood-aged cheeses) is where an economy breathes.

  24. “The Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research compiled research on the subject”

    Obvious shill for Big Cheese is not allowed to comment!

    /going for an analogy here…

  25. it’s pretty clear that in regulation and in the judicial system and elsewhere we need to introduce a few clear, broad rules that over-ride everything else and mandate some basic common-sense principles. It’s sad that things have gotten to the point where we need to mandate common sense in the first place, but there it is.

    For regulations, it’s pretty clear that if people have been doing something for a long time with little injury caused by it, then it is clearly safe and should not be regulated away. We need a rule stating as such, and it would clearly apply here.

    Like I said, I’ve thought of similar types of rules for other parts of our government system. For one thing, in the judiciary we need broad rules tying the application of punishment, liability, or other responsibilities to intentional human action (or negligence). So you clearly even though the federal rules say any biological father has to pay up child support, that law would be clearly illegal in situations where the baby was made when the father was raped (yup, it’s actually happened and the judge ruled he had to pay; dude was passed out drunk when she “rode” him). Similar rules would take care of similar silliness in our liability system.

    1. Oh, aren’t you all cute, using “regulations” and “government” and “common sense” in relation to each other all in the same post.

  26. Here is an Action Item Web Form where you can let decision makers know that you think the FDA’s cheesy power grab must be reversed: http://org.salsalabs.com/o/568….._KEY=12405

  27. As usual – lots of hype but no fact-checking by ENB –

    http://www.fda.gov/Food/NewsEv…..efault.htm

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