[UPDATED with FDA Response] First Our Guns, Now Our Cheese: Is the FDA Cracking Down On Using Wood To Age Cheese?
UPDATED June 10, 2014, 3:15 p.m. The FDA responded to our questions. See the update at the end of the post.
Flickr user USDAgov--yes, that's right. The best part about this photo of cheese aging on wood is that it's from the USDA, with a caption about how traditional it is.
Back in 2011, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which aimed to make the government agencies proactive rather than reactive when it came to securing the United States' food supply. There have been many changes in the food production world since then, and the latest may be a direct assault on American artisanal cheese.
According to the Cheese Underground (which would be an outstanding name for a raw dairy cow share), the Food and Drug Administration has taken control of cheese inspection back from the states, and cited a New York dairy for using wooden boards to age their cheeses.
That's not quite the whole picture. The dairy in question has been receiving FDA warnings (like this one) since 2012, when inspectors taking swab samples discovered listeria above the limit for human consumption. They shut the plant down after warning them, and as part of the letter to the plant, explained that wood is difficult to clean effectively because it is porous. The latest statement says that the use of wooden boards does not meet cGMPs (current good manufacturing processes) and quotes a study from 2010 that shows that listeria cannot be killed through standard sanitization.
So what happens if the FDA is really cracking down on this? Who cares what surface cheese is aged on?
Aging cheese on wood helps form the rind of aged cheeses such as cheddar, Reblochon, and Gruyère (you know, Swiss cheese?). Wood wicks the moisture away from the cheese, which dries the cheese from the outside, creating the thick rind that is characteristic of so many cheeses. Plastic, glass, ceramic and metal, of course, are not porous and so the cheeses will not form the same rind.
Technically, all cheese is subject to this same regulation, including imported cheese, which would have to be held in quarantine until it could be established that it did not contain unsafe bacteria.
Now, if all you ever eat is the pouch of shredded tri-color "Mexican" cheese from Safeway, this won't affect you at all. If you like cheese--real cheese--then you have some letters to write, because you won't be enjoying any bandaged cheddar, Beaufort, or Parmigiano-Reggiano if the FDA has indeed clarified its rule and issued a hard ban on wood-aged cheese.
UPDATE, June 10, 2014, 3:15 p.m.
According to Lauren Sucher, press officer for the Food and Drug Administration, there is no new policy and no crackdown. The incidents in New York that triggered the blog post were not solely based on the use of wood shelving. Per Sucher:
"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 has noted these concerns in inspectional findings. FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.
The FDA will engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving."
The letter that caused such uproar was sent to the Milk Control and Dairy Services division of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets in January 2014. It was in response to questions New York State raised about the practice.
So is it an all-out war on artisanal cheesemakers? No. Does it mean cheesemakers can use whatever wood they want? No. Like every five-alarm post on the Internet, the truth lies somewhere between the two.