Food Policy

Our Short National Cheese Nightmare Is Over: FDA Backtracks on Wood-Aged Cheese

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Jon Sullivan/Wikimedia

Earlier this week, I posted about a potential Food and Drug Administration (FDA) crack down* on cheese aged on wood surfaces. It's a practice that's been going on for hundreds of years, and may be more sanitary than aging cheese on plastic. Cheesemakers, libertarians, and a whole bunch of others were rightly outraged, and began making this known. 

Well, good news: The FDA announced Tuesday that wood-aged cheese is safe. From Dairy Herd Management magazine:

The agency said it did not have a new policy banning wooden shelves in cheese-making, adding there was no requirement in recent food safety regulations requiring the agency to address the issue.

Well, okay, but is there an old policy or an old requirement? Because in January the agency cited several New York cheesemakers for using wooden shelves. Industry blog Cheese Underground said this was unusual, as the FDA has traditionally deferred to state policy on this; but the rollout of 2011's Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has been compelling all sorts of weird new FDA meddling

When the New York Agriculture Department asked for clarification, Monica Metz, an official with the FDA's Dairy and Egg Branch, said the wooden shelves didn't conform to FDA "good manufacturing practice" regulations. But the FDA clarified Tuesday that it had never taken action against a cheesemaker based solely on the use of wood. It's just that these particular wooden shelves at these particular places were poorly cleaned.

Oh my. Has this all just been so much dairy industry hysteria? Or is the FDA backpedaling amidst the criticism? From the FDA's statement yesterday, it sounds to me like more of the latter.  

"In the interest of public health, the FDA's current regulations state that utensils and other surfaces that contact food must be 'adequately cleanable' and properly maintained," Lauren Sucher, an FDA spokeswoman, said in a statement.

"Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings," she said. "FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese."

My takeaway from all this seems to be that the FDA isn't mulling some major push to end aging cheese on wooden surfaces. But if it comes across it in (routine?) inspections, cheesemakers may be cited. 

"Good for the FDA for backing down," wrote Forbes contributor Greg McNeal. "Although it's unfortunate that they are dodging accountability by claiming they did not change their policy." At Cheese Underground, Jeanne Carpenter thanked consumers for writing letters, signing a petition, posting on Facebook, and generally making "standing up for artisan food a main-stream American issue." The FDA's "back-stepping in both tone and message is welcome news for the hundreds of cheesemakers across the country who have invested their life savings in making premium artisanal cheese and aging it on wooden boards," she wrote.

* I despise this phrase, but I've yet to find a better alternative. Taking suggestions…