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FDA Power Grab Fails

Written By Jeff Siegel

Posted June 13, 2014

cheeeseEarlier this week we learned that the FDA, in an attempt to further enforce the Food Safety Modernization Act., was going to disallow cheesemakers to use wooden boards in the aging process.

After hearing the news, I immediately looked to my cheesemonger for her take. Here’s what she said. . .

It’s not very often that you see developments in the cheese world being reported by such a range of news sources as Forbes, Slate and Huffington Post. But the FDA’s recent decision to ban the use of wooden boards as part of the cheese aging process has caused a controversy much larger than many could have anticipated. With blogposts and articles popping up all over the Internet, as well as an official statement from the American Cheese Society “strongly encouraging the FDA to revise its interpretation”, and a petition with over 2,300 signatures on The White House website, it is clear that a seemingly simple choice of shelving material matters a great deals to cheese makers and cheese lovers across the country.

The idea that wooden shelving could be so important to cheesemakers may never even have crossed the mind of the average American citizen. But the use of wooden shelving is crucial for many cheese making operations. In the FDA’s first released statement, the wooden boards were cited as a material that could not be “adequately cleanable” or “properly maintained”. But as Gordan Edgar writes on his site: “Most makers of traditional-style cheeses believe wood creates a beneficial environment for cheese.” Wooden boards have been used to age cheese for centuries- for a reason. Many cheesemaker’s products revolve around wooden shelving- recipes have been developed and cheese caves have literally been built around wooden shelves. To suddenly outlaw the time-honored tradition of aging on wooden shelves could have deleterious effects for cheese makers who have built their business around a particular group of cheeses. There is no predicting how exactly this would affect the production of American favorites such as Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Cabot Clothbound and Dunbarton Blue. Not to mention, many cheeses imported into the US from Europe are aged on wooden boards. In fact some cheeses, such as the beloved Comte, are required to be aged on wooden boards in order to be able to carry the name “Comte”. Since the regulation would apply to imported cheeses as well, this would be the end of a vast array of European cheeses in the States.

Just Cheese

Well, since the FDA first jumped the gun on its misguided comments regarding wood-aged cheese, the agency has issued an update stating that the FDA has not, and is not prohibiting the use of wood shelving for artisanal cheese. Although an FDA press release includes the following. . .

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.” Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and these concerns have been noted in its inspectional findings. However, the FDA will engage with the artisanal cheesemaking community, state officials and others to learn more about current practices and discuss the safety of aging certain types of cheeses on wooden shelving, as well as to invite stakeholders to share any data or evidence they have gathered related to safety and the use of wood surfaces. We welcome this open dialogue.

Isn’t that nice of them? They’re going to allow folks to share with them evidence regarding the safety of wood aging.

Now here’s a question for you. . .

Why does anyone have to share anything with the FDA in order to make sure we can eat something we choose?

Don’t kid yourself. The FDA got an earful from the cheesemaking community, and that’s the only reason they issued an update.

I know some folks may look at this as frivolous or unimportant. After all, it’s just cheese. But this isn’t really about cheese. This is about control. This is about personal freedom and choice. And rest assured, dear reader, personal freedom and choice are luxuries that we must continuously fight to protect. Even if it’s “just cheese.”