In a blow to small-scale, craft cheesemakers around the country, the FDA has effectively banned them from production – purely for elf’n’safety, of course.
A sense of disbelief and distress is quickly rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community, as the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week announced it will not permit American cheesemakers to age cheese on wooden boards.
That the practice has been standard for a few thousand years is apparently irrelevant. Moreover, the Agency will ban imported cheeses from Europe and Canada as well, if their products are found to have been aged on wooden boards. And most are.
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. Here’s an excerpt:
“Microbial pathogens can be controlled if food facilities engage in good manufacturing practice. Proper cleaning and sanitation of equipment and facilities are absolutely necessary to ensure that pathogens do not find niches to reside and proliferate. Adequate cleaning and sanitation procedures are particularly important in facilities where persistent strains of pathogenic microorganisms like Listeria monocytogenes could be found. The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP requirements, which require that “all plant equipment and utensils shall be so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable, and shall be properly maintained.” 21 CFR 110.40(a). Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized. 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.”
Not that they are, or have ever been found to be, a source of pathogens. But they could, potentially, be one. The Porta-Potties in the lettuce and strawberry fields are a-okay; no potential for contamination there. But wooden boards are real no-no. No worries, though; you’ll still be able to buy Velveeta.
Wisconsin cheesemaker Chris Roelli says the FDA’s “clarified” stance on using wooden boards is a “potentially devastating development” for American cheesemakers. He and his family have spent the past eight years re-building Roelli Cheese into a next-generation American artisanal cheese factory. Just last year, he built what most would consider to be a state-of-the-art aging facility into the hillside behind his cheese plant. And Roelli, like hundreds of American artisanal cheesemaekrs, has developed his cheese recipes specifically to be aged on wooden boards.
“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,” Roelli says. 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.”
In fact, many research papers do in fact conclude that wooden boards are safe. In 2013, the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research published a paper on the subject, concluding: “Considering the beneficial effects of wood boards on cheese ripening and rind formation, the use of wood boards does not seem to present any danger of contamination by pathogenic bacteria as long as a thorough cleaning procedure is followed.”
But the FDA isn’t about to let a few facts stand in the way. And as the vast majority of imported cheeses are aged on wood boards, importation – as noted above – will likewise be dramatically curtailed. This development will undoubtedly please the Kraft Foods and the folks who run the show at Tillamook, among others, because hey – competition’s being shut off. The big cheeses over at Big Cheese must be turning cartwheels right about now.
Once FDA’s got a policy to enforce, no amount of data’s going to persuade them to alter that policy. Much as government has limited your healthcare options, they’re no going after your cheese. Bon appetit!