A new ruling from the Food and Drug Administration is causing a stink among American artisanal cheesemakers.
That's according to Cheese Underground blogger Jeanne Carpenter, who reports the FDA last week announced it was banning American cheesemakers from aging cheese on wooden boards. The FDA deemed the practice unsanitary, despite the fact it's been in use for hundreds of years.
The wooden shelves cheesemakers use are not easy to clean or sanitize, said Monica Metz, chief of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition's Dairy and Egg Branch, in reponse to an inquiry by the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets. What's more, Metz said, wood's porous structure makes it susceptible to bacteria which breed "pathogenic microorganisms."
Aaron Foster, the head buyer for the Brooklyn Kitchen in New York City, disputed this claim. "Cheesemakers have used rigorous environmental testing to show that it's really very safe," he told Inc. And there are benefits to using wood. "It's certainly less expensive than stainless steel or plastic," which are so sterile they can actually draw pathogens, he said. Wood isolates the moisture for cheese, which in turn makes it supple and easier to control.
Foster added that "the nuances of cheese aging are lost on a lot of people" at organizations like the FDA, which find it easier to institute a blanket rule over food processes than "entertain more science on the matter." He is confident, however, that bigger companies will weigh in on the debate, since artisanal cheesemakers aren't the only ones whose businesses might be at stake. "The larger companies are going to have the science and money to present their case to the FDA," he said, which will give smaller companies an edge.
What's unique about the FDA's ruling is that it claims to reinforce policies that were already in place. Rob Ralyea, senior extension associate in the department of food science at Cornell University said in an email to industry professionals that "while the FDA has had jurisdiction in all food plants, it deferred cheese inspections almost exclusively to the states. This has all obviously changed under FSMA."
FSMA refers to the Food Safety Modernization Act, a sweeping reform of American food safety laws signed into law by President Obama in 2011. The goal of the reform is to keep U.S. food safe by preventing contamination rather than merely responding to it. But, wrote Cheese Underground's Carpenter, while most respected cheesemakers expected their businesses to be regulated more than they had been in the past, "no one expected this giant regulation behemoth to virtually put a stop to innovation in the American artisanal cheese movement."