Business & Economy

When the cheese hits the 'ban' — FDA backtracks on wooden boards

File: A picture taken on November 18, 2011 shows cheese during the European bi-annual Eurogusto slow food festival in Tours, central France.
File: A picture taken on November 18, 2011 shows cheese during the European bi-annual Eurogusto slow food festival in Tours, central France.
Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

Expressions like "Cheese Apocalypse" have been spread across the baguettesphere in recent days, and for good reason — a developing story had the aroma of a robust scandal. In reality, the taste profile of the problem is closer to an old-fashioned miscommunication and backpedaling.

"Casein" point? Had the doomsaying been accurate, it would have meant utter decimation to the tradition of artisan cheese making.

Earlier this week, Forbes reported on an FDA "decree" that came after the New York State Department of Agriculture asked the agency for clarification on "whether wooden surfaces were acceptable for the aging of cheese." Citing 21 CFR 110.40(a), a U.S. Food and Drug Administration food safety branch chief responded that "the use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform" to current good practices.

Cheese Underground responded that "many of the most awarded and well-respected American artisan cheeses" are aged on wood:

"American Cheese Society triple Best in Show winner Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin is cured on wooden boards. Likewise for award-winners Cabot Clothbound in Vermont, current U.S. Champion cheese Marieke Gouda, and 2013 Best in Show Runner-Up Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar." 

The American Cheese Society responded with a brief history of cheese-making:

“For centuries, cheesemakers have been creating delicious, nutritious, unique cheeses aged on wood. Today’s cheesemakers—large and small, domestic and international—continue to use this material for production due to its inherent safety, unique contribution to the aging and flavor-development process, and track record of safety as part of overall plant hygiene and good manufacturing practices.”

And artisan cheese-makers went on the melt, reports NPR, grilling the FDA over the alarming letter and an interpretation that wooden boards were, essentially, unsanitary, based on statements like:

"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 story was then scattered, smothered and covered by various outlets, and for their part, the FDA responded before the situation ripened into grade A hysteria:

"The agency’s regulations do not specifically address the use of shelving made of wood in cheesemaking, nor is there any FSMA requirement in effect that addresses this issue. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves. "

Eater reports that "the agency chalks ups the initial statement banning aging cheese on wood as a 'communication not intended as an official policy statement' but instead was supposed to be 'clarification' on questions asked by New York State."

Forbes praises the agency for backing down, but accuses them of “dodging accountability” by claiming they did not change their policy. “Let’s consider this a clarification, of their earlier clarification, which improperly characterized their official policy,” they reported, adding, “either way it’s good news."

We'll see what happens as the story ages.