Has The FDA Brought On A Cheese Apocalypse? Probably Not

| June 12, 2014 | 3 Comments
  • 3 Comments
Cheese aging on wooden boards in a cheese cave at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vt. Photo: DJ Mitchell/Flickr

Cheese aging on wooden boards in a cheese cave at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vt. Photo: DJ Mitchell/Flickr

by April Fulton, The Salt at NPR Food (6/12/14)

The Food and Drug Administration official who recently suggested that the wooden boards used to age cheese for centuries may be unsafe probably did not expect to start a cheese storm. But she did.

In a letter to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, FDA dairy safety chief Monica Metz wrote:

“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.”

Distress rippled through the U.S. cheese-making community, as cheesemakers took this to mean they’d have to do away with the boards they count on to hold moisture, allow the cheese to breathe and improve its flavor profile. For some, that might mean the end of their business altogether.

Many of the best American cheeses (and by American, we don’t mean those plastic-wrapped singles) are aged on wooden boards. These include Cabot’s Clothbound Cheddar and Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a gruyere-like raw-milk cheese. Plenty of European cheese artisans use them, too — to make delicious delicacies like Comte and Reblochon.

The FDA, for its part, is worried about the bad bacteria, like listeria, that can grow on improperly cleaned surfaces and cause illness and death.

“Wood is hard to clean –- that’s why they don’t allow wooden pallets for some things,” former FDA food safety chief David Acheson tells The Salt. And wooden cutting boards? They are not allowed in commercial food service prep, although there are many methods home cooks swear by, including spraying with diluted vinegar or bleach.

As for the cheese aging boards, “There’s no question there’s a risk,” Acheson says, but the question is, how much. “I’m not aware of any evidence that the wooden boards on which cheese is aged led to listeria outbreaks,” he says.

Although it’s not the first time FDA has picked a battle over bugs — mimolette, anyone? — this time, “it really put a rocket under the cheese industry,” he says.

“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,” Wisconsin cheesemaker Chris Roelli told the blog Cheese Underground — one of the first to report on the issue.

Cheesemakers have already gotten members of Congress involved to prevent the FDA from taking away their boards. Rep. Peter Welsh of Vermont and several bipartisan colleagues sent this letter to other House members, which reads in part:

“Artisan cheese makers already have rigorous protocols in place to assure the safety of their product. Instead of banning a centuries-old aging process and triggering a possible trade war with Europe, the FDA should take a deep breath and work collaboratively with food scientists and cheese makers to ensure their products meet the high standards expected by cheese loving consumers around the world.”

By Tuesday night, it seemed the FDA had taken a deep breath and suggesting a dialogue with cheesemakers about the cleanliness of wooden boards.

The American Cheese Society concurs that so far, there’s no evidence that boards used to age cheese have gotten people sick.

So how do you clean a wooden cheese aging board? The ACS recommends kiln, air and heat drying, as well as sanitizing with “acceptable products.”

Copyright 2014 NPR.

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Category: cheese, health and nutrition, NPR food, politics, activism, food safety

About the Author ()

Food and Health-related stories from NPR including NPR Radio; NPR's food blog, "The Salt"; NPR's Health News blog, "Shots"; NPR's Breaking News blog "The Two-Way"; NPR's economy explainer "Planet Money"; food-related technology news from NPR's "All Tech Considered"; and food series "Kitchen Window."
  • bojimbo26

    So generations of people that have been eating cheese might now get stomach upsets . Righttttttttt .

  • OwenRay

    I am willing to risk death for good cheese.

  • Greengrasseater

    When this broke, I immediately wrote the following to all WI State and federal legislators, and passed it around to Chris Roelli and several other WI cheesemakers:

    I
    write to you with serious concern about the FDA’s grossly overreaching
    and exceedingly ill-founded position on the banishing of wood in making
    and aging artisanal cheeses. The action contains language in part,
    saying:

    “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.”

    The
    FDA, in its action, has taken a kind of cleaver approach to what can be
    dealt with in a more reasoned, responsible fashion. In doing so, the
    FDA ignores good science showing exactly that not only can wood be used
    in a responsible way, but how to maintain wood in a creamery environment, in a safe, clean, and sanitary way.

    A study from Journal of Food Protection 57:1, pp. 16-22
    (.pdf) shows, in part that wooden cutting boards, inoculated with one
    or more of E. coli (including the pathogenic O157:H7), Listeria, and
    Salmonella, were in fact safer than the plastic cutting boards of the study’s samples.

    Another report from UW Madison (See Pipeline 25:1, pp. 8-9) (.pdf),evaluating studies on the safety of wooden shelving in traditional, artisanal creameries, concludes with:

    “The present study shows that the use of
    wooden shelves does not affect the hygienic safety of cheeses if such
    shelves are in good repair and are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized
    by heat treatment.”

    Finally, adding to the experimental science
    supporting the notion that wood in the use of cheese manufacture and
    aging can be a safe, sanitary medium, history alone speaks strongly in
    support of the practice. Cheese has been made this way, with the use of
    wood, for 1000′s of years
    – chronicling reports of French alpine cheeses go back as far as
    Caesar’s time. That alone is considerable “anecdotal” evidence, to
    support the practice.

    Aside from this science
    deserving at least a considered review, the FDA made this action,
    unilaterally; it did not take public commentary nor follow other proper
    protocol in coming to this draconian decision. This simply cannot stand
    by any reasonable evaluation.

    Artisanal cheesemakers in America represent the best of
    entrepreneurial spirit, integrity to craft, and concern for the good
    health and pleasure of their end-point consumers. Those with
    established practice in the use of wood did so, and do so, under
    considerable cost and care.

    This decision is simply a bad decision. I strongly urge you to
    evaluate the severity of the issues involved, and do what you can, in as
    determined a manner as your office permits, to right this unjust and
    ill-founded wrong. I thank you for taking the time to evaluate my
    request, and the request of my fellow cheesemakers and our supportive
    customers.

    Sincerely…

    ***

    It’s an important issue. Should it come alive again, it’s important to note both the history (as I mention, it’s been done in Europe for 1000′s of years – chronicled in Caesar’s time), and science to back up the practice of safe use of wood in aging. It would truly be a debacle to all artisan cheesemaking, everywhere, should this ill-conceived position be raised again, or worse yet, rigorously enforced.