The FDA's Unpalatable Cheese Crackdown

Did the FDA really back down? There are holes in that argument.


Mig Groningen / Wikimedia Commons

Last summer, I warned that the Federal Drug Administration could move to "increase restrictions on artisanal cheeses."

My worst fears were realized this week when a nationwide firestorm erupted over an FDA decision to ban the use of wooden planks to age cheese. Cheesemakers, farmers, chefs, commentators, and consumers were furious. The decision to ban the centuries–old practice, first reported by the Cheese Underground blog, seemed to come out of the blue.

"The FDA's decision will not only harm American cheese makers, but may also bring a halt to the importation of artisan cheeses from abroad as Canadian and European Union regulators have not imposed such draconian measures and still allow for the use of wood boards to age cheese," wrote Greg McNeal at Forbes.

"I wouldn't even know what the selection would be like after this as there are so many small run cheese made in this way," wrote Adam Ratmoko, chef at Meritage in Philadelphia, in a Twitter message to me. Ratmoko, whose kitchen serves 18 different types of cheese, was the first of many people to alert me to the FDA's actions last week.

But then the agency reversed course, and the new rule vanished as quickly as it had appeared. The FDA issued an update that began with the sentence, "Recently, you may have heard some concerns…"

No kidding.

What saved cheese? As Walter Olson notes at Overlawyered, the FDA likely spared the substance (for now) thanks to the fact that cheese is a favorite of people who write columns defending their own highfalutin food choices.

The FDA's statement goes on to claim adamantly and definitively that agency bureaucrats "have not and are not prohibiting or banning the long–standing practice of using wood shelving in artisanal cheese."

It notes that a letter the FDA sent to the New York State Department of Agriculture earlier this year was to blame. "[The] language used in this communication may have appeared more definitive than it should have, in light of the agency's actual practices on this issue," said the statement.

So all of this public concern about a potential ban on artisanal cheesemaking is really just much ado about nothing? The FDA backed down, right?

No, and no.

The agency's statement also says that the FDA "will engage with the artisanal cheesemaking community" based on FDA's historic concerns "about whether wood meets [agency food safety] requirement[s.]" It will also "invite stakeholders to share any data or evidence they have gathered related to safety and the use of wood surfaces."

Parsing this language is almost unnecessary. The FDA still wants to ban the use of wooden crates in cheesemaking.

When the FDA "invites stakeholders" to "engage" with its bureaucrats, only bad things happen. When those stakeholders lack a powerful lobby in Washington, D.C., it's time to expect the worst.

The recent FDA chronology bears this out. Recall that the FDA invited the makers of Four Loko and other beers that contained added caffeine to talk with the agency. This period of engagement between Four Loko "stakeholders" and the FDA ended with the agency banning the product.

As I've noted many times, the Food Safety Modernization Act caused outrage among small farmers, food entrepreneurs, and their supporters around the country when it became clear the rules the FDA had invented to enforce the new law would ban many forms of organic farming and bankrupt many small farms.

Passage of the FSMA was followed by an agency investigation (still ongoing) into "any and all products with added caffeine." Then came the FDA's ongoing plan to ban trans fats. That was followed by the agency's idiotic fight to ban the centuries old practice of using spent grains from the brewing process to feed livestock. Now the regulators are coming for cheese.

If you're not seeing the pattern, then there's really nothing I can do. The FDA is a powerful and power–mad agency that regulates 80 percent of the food supply (and growing). The food and beverages you eat and drink today are only legal because the agency hasn't yet figured out a way to ban them.

You dine at the pleasure of the FDA. Enjoy it while it lasts.

NEXT: Tonight on The Independents: Obama Scandals Countdown!

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  1. Somebody needs to find a violation inside the FDA headquarters, and order the building sealed off. Preferably hermetically sealed, with the FDA bureaucrats still inside.

  2. OT: Man has murder conviction overturned after 32 years due to DNA test.

    Now he’s arrested on a *new* murder charge.


    1. Is that Rev. Run?

    2. I hope it’s for killing the prosecutors and cops who railroaded him.

      1. Wouldn’t you?

      2. the 53-year-old ex-con shot and stabbed a man following an argument at a party

    3. Assuming he really did it, and the police aren’t just trying to frame him again…

      What the fuck do you expect when you take an innocent 21 year old and lock him up with a bunch of murderers and thieves for most of his adult life?

    4. Isn’t he entitled to a free one now?

  3. For the football fan who has everything (else)

    A department store in central Tokyo has put a gold soccer ball on display to help build excitement for the FIFA World Cup now on in Brazil.

    The 3-kg ball was put on display starting Thursday to draw attention to a gold campaign at Takashimaya Co.’s Nihonbashi store in Chuo Ward. Measuring 22 cm in diameter, it is priced at ?42.88 million.

    ?42.88 million comes out to about $420,000.

    1. The winner will get the gold ball, and will be so excited they’ll have it bronzed.

      Oops, wrong joke.

  4. Nude Guy Causes Chain-Reaction Highway Crash

    Dope, 27, was truck surfing when he fell onto New Mexico highway

    His accomplice describes herself as a “polytheist” who will “bow only to the old gods and goddesses.”

    1. Please tell me Dope is his actual name and not their description of him.

      1. The contents of his bloodstream?

    2. Rich|6.14.14 @ 8:15AM|#
      “Nude Guy Causes Chain-Reaction Highway Crash
      Dope, 27, was truck surfing when he fell onto New Mexico highway”

      Well, he coulda come to SF:
      “World Naked Bike Ride: Saturday in Justin Herman Plaza”

    3. She needs to do some serious praying to Odin about her gigantic forehead.

  5. Not mentioned by anyone so far: The number of people sickened or killed by cheese aged on wooden boards.

    1. Sickened? Everybody in the FDA.

    2. “Not mentioned by anyone so far: The number of people sickened or killed by cheese aged on wooden boards.”

      Well, mister smarty pants, you can’t PROVE it’s safe!
      And they use glue to hold them together and glue is a poison! I’ve seen studies!

      1. The Cheese might be made from rBGH milk. Who knows what kind of crazy shit those genes could do!

    3. Who gives a shit?

      Cheese has been made this way for 3000 years.

      Occasional bad yeast in beer kills people, too.

      The carbonized crust on grilled steak causes cancer.

      You know what else kills a motherfucker? Being an intrusive little bitch about their food choices.

  6. IRS says it cannot locate Lois Lerner emails prior to 2011

    “There needs to be an immediate investigation and forensic audit by Department of Justice as well as the inspector general.”

    Well, doesn’t *that* make the cheese more binding?

    Seriously, I’ve seen nothing in the LSM about this outrage. I look forward to the congressional investigation.

    1. Anybody in the private sector tried this, it would be evidence tampering and all sorts of other crimes.

      1. I can only hope that this obstruction of justice leads to the same fate for the IRS that the shredding of Enron documents led to the demise of Arthur Andersen.

    2. “most transparent administration ever”

      1. Of course they’re transparent – you see through them, don’t you?

    3. Near as I can tell, they are claiming they have absolutely no backups anywhere in the IRS of their email. That the only possible source of email to/from Lois Lerner is Lois’s own C drive.

      Which raises the question of why her C drive isn’t backed up.

      Even if they have no backups, and they really do just keep all email on their C drives, then wouldn’t all those emails also be on the C drives of the other people who received or sent them?

  7. What saved cheese? As Walter Olson notes at Overlawyered, the FDA likely spared the substance (for now) thanks to the fact that cheese is a favorite of people who write columns defending their own highfalutin food choices.

    Exactly. Better to stick it to the Four Loko proles then mess with artisinal cheeses loved by NYT et al deep thinkers.

    1. Our progressive government saved us from this bad regulation rammed through by Big Cheese. Take that corporations! Stopping your capitalist plan to force everyone to eat Velveeta is just one of those things we all do together.

  8. “At elite donor summit featuring 2016 GOP hopefuls, a longing for Romney to run again…

    “The heightened interest in Romney among the business leaders, donors and policy wonks gathering in Park City this weekend speaks volumes about their anxiety at the disarray in the Republican Party. There is no clear 2016 front-runner, and there is deep doubt about the two leading establishment favorites [Christie and Jeb Bush].”


    1. Are they incapable of learning from their failures?

      1. It depends on how you define failure.

        They think that Hillary winning is better then someone who is an actual libertarian or even conservative winning..

  9. Happy Troll Appreciation Saturday!

    “Christianity will rise as sceptics die out, geneticist claims…

    “The world could see a resurgence of Christianity driven by population decline in sceptical countries, the geneticist Steve Jones has claimed….

    “”We atheists sometimes congratulate ourselves that the incidence of religious belief is going down.

    “”But religious people have more children. Where are people having the most children? It’s in the tropics and in Africa.

    “”It’s clearly the case that the future will involve an increase in religious populations and a decrease in scepticism.

    “”We may not need more scientists but more theologists.””


    1. “”We may not need more scientists but more theologists.””

      *God knows* we need more theologists!

    2. Major religions will eventually die out on their own.

      The term “recovering catholic” comes to mind.

  10. “One group’s Flag Day wish: Flags for feds who died in the line of duty…

    “Congress unanimously passed legislation in 2011 that authorized agencies to present U.S. flags to the beneficiaries of civilian federal workers killed in the line of duty. More than two years later, [the Office of Personnel Management] still has not finalized regulations to go along with the law….

    “”Members of the civilian federal and postal workforce risk their lives to carry out official duties and are critical to executing agencies’ foreign and domestic missions,” the [Federal-Postal Coalition] said in a statement on Friday. “Providing a flag recognizes these employees for their valor and dedication to their agency, and most importantly, to the people of the United States.””


    1. I’ll be in favor of this as soon as these “public servants” are conscripted into their positions and earn $300 a month.

      1. I didn’t get $300. I got $45 every two weeks. But blow-jobs were only two bucks at the time.

  11. Come on, guys, with cheese banned, I gave you the some red meat.

  12. Thats why we roll with the punches.


  13. “My worst fears were realized this week when a nationwide firestorm erupted over an FDA decision to ban the use of wooden planks to age cheese.”

    Surely Linnekin has worse fears than that, otherwise he has pretty boring nightmares.

    1. “Then our worst fears have been realized”


  14. Soylent green is bureaucrats!

    1. The final step in the FedGovs plan is to turn “civilians” into livestock to feed their federal “heroes”.

      Dystopia away!

  15. Is the FDA that out of touch with the industries they regulate? With all the artisan cheese being made out there, and there’s a lot of it, esp in Wisconsin, it seems that someone should have anticipated the backlash.

    1. You don’t really think regulators believe they might be *gasp* wrong, do you? How can you doubt the TOP MEN’s belief in themselves?

    2. It’s more like …

      The FDA is in touch with the LARGE cheesemakers, like Kraft, who are threatened by the small artesianal cheesemakers.

      Kraft, which produces mass quantities of mediocre cheese on sterile plastic shelves would dearly love to ban using wooden boards because it forces their competitors to produce cheese in the same way that Kraft does, which they will be less efficient at. I.e. they have to stop being “artesianal” cheese makers.

      So no, I don’t think the FDA is out of touch with the industries it regulates at all.

      Lets also keep in mind that socialists love it when large businesses dominate an industry, because it’s so much easier to run it as a branch of the state that way. They would prefer it if everyone worked for Kraft Foods, so they could then just unionize all of Krafts employees and tell Kraft exactly how much to pay each worker and how much cheese they ought to produce each year under the dairy quotas. So much easier than having to deal with a bunch of cottage industry cheesemakers who imagine themselves to be individuals with a right to pursue happiness. Fucking anti-social fucks deviating from the plan!

      1. Exactly. And while I am too lazy now to find a link, I read that the person behind the proposed regulation (a woman named Metz, IIRC) is a former employee of Big Cheese.

      2. Your’e right, of course.

        I remember reading somewhere (Reason?) about the reason our choices of imported cheeses are artificially restricted. I just did some very weak web surfing to find out why and came to realize that, despite reading all the rhetoric about burdensome regulations, I had no concept of HOW MUCH STUFF is out there!! Laws and regulations everywhere. Ugh!

        I think I’ll go calm down with some stilton.

        /Wallace and Gromit

      3. Not every action by regulators is due to regulatory capture.

        Honestly, artisanal cheeses have been around a long time, and Kraft is not too worried, I think. I doubt Kraft even uses racks at all.

        I think its much more likely some bureaucrat thinks that stainless steel really is the cleanest and assumes wood is dangerous wanted to increase their sway.

        Also, I see the photos of those wooden racks, and yeah, replacing them with stainless steel would be what a regulator thinks is a good idea, because they don’t consider cost, and they don’t consider possible enhancements to the product. They just see microscopic risks of safety.

        1. To a certain extent there is the problem that if you give someone a job whose entire purpose is to make things as safe as possible, they are going to always err in the direction of MORE SAFE, because they get paid entirely based on the number of microbes in the cheese, and not based on how tasty it is.

          The problem of course is that the guy with the safety regulations has guns to back him up, and the guy who wants to make tastier cheese only has customers who want to pay him.

          1. “The problem of course is that the guy with the safety regulations has guns to back him up, and the guy who wants to make tastier cheese only has customers who want to pay him.”

            Another problem is that the regulators are commonly recruited from the industry because of the knowledge.
            The recruiter is familiar with the lobbyist she met at the last dairy convention who happened to work for Kraft.
            It’s not that he favors Kraft, it’s that he has no other context, and a LOT or power.

            1. I’m betting that there are several big industrial players. I’m assuming even the deli quality cheese I buy is made by a fairly large plant that uses all stainless steel or food grade plastic.

              Any of those guys get hired by the regulator, they’d have that industrial super hygienic mentality.

              And when regulators have already taken care of the big, low-hanging fruit, they have to start looking for dumber and dumber things to worry about.

              If they are like CARB ins California, they might even falsify research to find new work.

      4. Of course the government would prefer larger, easier-to-regulate, tax, control businesses – certainly no secret that the IRS despises small businesses. It’s easy to point to large manufacturers (such as Kraft) as the bad-guy, but they certainly didn’t ask for this degree of regulation.

        A group I don’t see discussed on reason is the INSURANCE industry – many businesses and industries (including large) are literally being “insured” out of existence (food manufacturing is difficult to insure in many states). Additionally, at an individual level how you build your home, drive your car, medical choices, alcohol levels, etc. are pushed by the insurance industry. Clearly a need for both tort reform and some honesty about the insurance industry (thank you Warren Buffet) role is regulation.

  16. Regulators! Mount up!

  17. Speaking of out of touch, it turns out wood cutting boards are actually more hygienic than plastic. I would imagine the same is true for wooden cheese shelving.

    Here’s a study from 1993 pointing this out, but it’s only starting to hit mainstream now that the plastic hygienic craze and food restaurant regulations had it wrong the whole time.

    1. I read it back when it first came out. It hit the mainstream then too.

  18. Let them (not) eat cheese!

  19. This is how it works. The government threatens to destroy an industry. The industry coughs up money to pay lobbyists and campaign organizations, the government backs off, for now. repeat ad nauseam. Now you have a bunch of captive interests who are compelled to keep spending money to be allowed to keep existing.

    This is how K street survives.
    This is how the establishment maintains itself in power.

    Do note that they would never consider backing off far enough to allow anyone else to thrive and threaten them. You exist only because you have paid the tribute.

    1. That’s part of it, but another part is simply the urge to justify one’s position by being a busybody.

      1. And the fact that your mission is defined purely in terms of maximizing safety. It’s not the FDA’s job to make tastier cheese. So they have zero interest in whether any of their regulations make it less tasty. Give them the guns and they will tirelessly work towards safer and safer cheese, regardless of what effect it has on quality. It’s a power imbalance between the regulators and the consumers.
        One side has the force of law and the other side only has wallets to work with.

        1. True, and they don’t care about the costs they impose, either.

          1. That lefty twit craig assured me that the EPA must base decisions on cost/benefit analysis.
            When I asked him the data re: the ’70s auto emission controls, he seemed to have difficulty providing it.

          2. This is also where certain compliance companies can make a lot of money.

            When California passed new CARB rules on formaldehyde content in engineered wood products (plywood, MDF, particle board) they only allowed on compliance company to certify suppliers.

            They made a fortune until a few others were allowed.

            I also heard there were a few manufacturers who already had purchased the expensive machinery and of course the machinery companies who made off like bandits.

            Probably saved 3 lives every century at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

            1. *one* compliance company.

  20. Precisely how many illnesses and deaths has the FDA verified were caused specifically by cheese-born microbes that were traced to the wooden aging boards last year? I’ll bet there are exactly zero.

    1. There are probably more people who die by eating old sandwich meats in their fridge.

      Ooops. I just gave the FDA a new idea.

  21. This is not FDA’s fault. It’s not even Congress’s, although they’ve surely worsened the underlying problem. Unfortunately things like this would happen even if there were no state or federal regulatory agents or statutes at all, and only common law.

    The problem is with the law of negligence. Unfortunately there can be no fixed standard of safety, of anything. Safety is always relative, and it’s always relative to how things are in their current surroundings. That means what’s acceptable practice today is negligent tomorrow. That means that on a certain day at a certain time in a certain place, with no notice by anyone, a practice changes from acceptable to negligent, and one finds out only later when lawsuits are ruled on. Regulatory law has made things worse by enjoining certain actions without waiting for actual damages, but the problem is there regardless of whether there are regulations or not.

    1. …”the problem is there regardless of whether there are regulations or not.”

      Not sure tort law is directly comparable to federal agency regulations.
      At the very least, tort requires someone to show damage, which isn’t the case here.

      1. Tort SHOULD require someone to show actual damages, but unfortunately, in an overly litigious society this is not always the case.

  22. Ironic that many of these organic, nouveau farmers, and so-called artisans are the same crowd who would like to legislate the food industry out of existence, ban GM crops, and dictate what the world should eat. Over regulation isn’t so fun when it turns the other way.

    While I am critical of many FDA practices, there are a growing number of small producers/manufacturers who know little to nothing about food safety and are ignoring basic practices which have been in-place for decades.

  23. When all the food that everyone eats has no taste will the nannies be happy, nah!

  24. Get used to the taste of government cheese, folks. It might be all we can get soon.

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