[UPDATED with FDA Response] First Our Guns, Now Our Cheese: Is the FDA Cracking Down On Using Wood To Age Cheese?

Categories: Indigestion

cheeseaging.jpg
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.
UPDATED June 10, 2014, 3:15 p.m. The FDA responded to our questions. See the update at the end of the post.

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.

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16 comments
Roy_B
Roy_B

U don't understand. Cheeeese is full of fungi and bacteria  The govt knows best.  We are Fat, Stupid & Diabetic. Only the govt can solve our problems.  We don't know what's good for us.  Bann all food in homes and restaurants.  We should only be allowed 3 meals a day from our local elementary schools, because they know nutrition and and are edecaded.

Here's to fishsticks and corndogs and jello

bobvila
bobvila

Gummit better NOT take my wooden gun-aging board.

BillxT
BillxT topcommenter

Dave,

Actually, the product that we call "Swiss Cheese" is not much like Gruyère. The cheese sold as such here is much more like an Ementhaler. But, I suspect that you know that and were using a short cut.

If cheese-loving folks out there haven't tried an alter Gruyère, you haven't lived.

Hugo Castro
Hugo Castro

I saw these earlier I thought it was a joke

mhip
mhip

When you have wood, and fromunda, it could be a problem...

Jason Yore Fenwick
Jason Yore Fenwick

Here in australia the use of/enforcement of GMPs is pretty much limited to HACCP certified facilities that are audited yearly. You can get around things like this IF you have documented, and verifiable proof that the PRODUCT you are making is safe for human consumption despite high levels of bacteria present. In short, cured and aged products are expected to have levels of good and bad bacteria while going through the process. As long as you test the product before it's eaten, and those tests are clear. You can make products how you like

Roderick Conwi
Roderick Conwi

Besides the title, how the hell is the FDA cracking down on guns? It's an unsupported claim that's nowhere on the damn article.

Lea La Porte
Lea La Porte

That's bullshit!!! Europeans aren't obese because they don't have the hormones and stuff that the FDA approves and now this?!?!? I'm going to sign whatever petition for this.

Lon Hall
Lon Hall

"That government is best that F**ks off and dies!!

osiris321
osiris321

This sort of thing is often framed as "government against small business" when it's really "big business against small business". The FDA and other agencies are controlled by big business including big dairy--- one look at Big Pharma actions via FDA makes that obvious --- and any attempt at removing the influence of big business on government is viewed as, well, liberal. Which it is.

fishwithoutbicycle
fishwithoutbicycle topcommenter

The FDA has to pick on someone so they look like they actually give a damn about public health because they're in the pocket of Big Pharma and can't go after them for making products that are a real danger to American citizens.

"Blessed be the cheese-makers..."

annalynne5
annalynne5

This could potentially save these cheese aging shelved from needing replacement: http://goo.gl/TLPqcJ

As this article states - "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." - so if the cheese is in a surface raised above the wood, it should be okay!

BobLoblawsLawBlog
BobLoblawsLawBlog

Well, to be fair, the cheese pictured is not in direct contact with the wood. There is a layer of paper (parchement paper, probably) under the cheese. Is the FDA upset about the use of wood, or the fact that they don't change out the boards after use?

BillxT
BillxT topcommenter

Sure, who cares if the air in our area goes back to the unbreathable muck it was in the 70s, who better to decide what's allowable to dump in our drinking water sources than chemical companies?

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