Hey, this cheese tastes woody…

by T.W. Burger

On June 10, the federal Food & Drug Administration said it may be backing down from a policy that cheese-makers would no longer be able to age their cheese on wooden boards.

The policy change was announced in Forbes Magazine and other media outlets:

“The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA requirement in effect that addresses this issue,” the announcement read. “Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.”

The FDA had made the move because of their viewpoint that “utensils and other surfaces that contact food must be ‘adequately cleanable’ and properly maintained.” The agency has typically made note of its worries that wood may not be safely used for such purposes as aging cheese, despite the fact that cheese makers have been aging cheese that way for centuries without notable problems.

The reaction from the artisan cheese industry and its friends was quick and fierce, though couched in decorous language, at least at the political level.

New York State agricultural commissioner Richard A. Ball weighed in via a prepared statement June 11: “I am very concerned about the damage this policy could do to these businesses, not only in New York, but across the country,” Ball wrote, ‘respectfully’ asking that the FDA hold off on any enforcement actions “until a full science-based peer review is completed… Our inspectors, as well as the artisans who make these cheeses, work hard to ensure that the process of aging cheese is done safely.”

In other words, “We don’t have a problem here.”

Ball said FDA inspectors began conducting environmental assessments of cheese making facilities in New York in 2010, looking for pathogens at these facilities. The inspections resumed in 2012. He said there are 125 artisanal cheese manufacturers in his state.

“In 2013, FDA inspectors cited an Upstate New York artisanal cheese company for what it called ‘a repeat violation’ involving aging cheese on wood.  That company subsequently entered into a consent decree with FDA and has been closed since then to take corrective action.”

He did not name the company.

That same year, Ball said, New York’s Department of Agriculture and Markets Division of Milk Control “reached out” to the feds “to seek clarification of the noted violations relating to aging cheese on wooden boards.”

The FDA responded that, in their view, “The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP [Current Good Manufacturing Practices] requirements.”

While the FDA is holding off on its enforcement, it has no intention of changing its policies, Ball said.

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