Aging cheese on wood boards is a common practice among artisan cheesemakers at home and overseas. Now, some in the industry are worried regulators may crack down on it.
In recent communication to the New York regulators, the Food and Drug Administration noted that wood shelves and boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized, and as such, do not conform to a particular regulation regarding plant equipment and utensils.
The federal agency also noted that "proper cleaning and sanitation of equipment and facilities are absolutely necessary to ensure that pathogens do not find niches to reside and proliferate."
However, in a statement issued last Wednesday in the agency’s CFSAN Constituent Update, the FDA seemed to backtrack on the stance saying that the “communication was not intended as an official policy statement.” It noted that it hasn't taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wood shelves and urged cheesemakers to join a constructive dialogue about safe aging processes. The release stated:
“The FDA has taken enforcement action in some situations where we have found the presence of Listeria monocytogenes at facilities that used such shelving. Since 2010, FDA inspections have found Listeria monocytogenes in more than 20 percent of inspections of artisanal cheesemakers. However, the FDA does not have data that directly associates these instances of contamination with the use of wood shelving.
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 these concerns have been noted in its inspectional findings. However, the FDA will engage with the artisanal cheesemaking community, state officials and others to learn more about current practices and discuss the safety of aging certain types of cheeses on wooden shelving, as well as to invite stakeholders to share any data or evidence they have gathered related to safety and the use of wood surfaces. We welcome this open dialogue.”
The FDA said it will engage with the artisanal cheesemaking community to determine whether certain types of cheese can be safely made by aging them on wood shelves.
When asked what that process would entail, FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher said in an email that the agency "can't speculate on immediate next steps."
The note to New York regulators had sparked concern in the cheese world because much of the cheese that's imported in the U.S. is aged on wood. Robert Ralyea, a senior extension associate at Cornell University's Department of Food Science, said aging cheese on wood is even a part of the standard of identity for some cheeses, such as Comte cheese.
Ralyea said he had made the inquiry about wood boards to New York state regulators on behalf of Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese, a local cheesemaker. State regulators then requested clarity from the FDA on the matter. The FDA's communication was posted late last week, sparking the concerns in the cheese world.
"A sense of disbelief and distress is rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community," wrote the blog Cheese Underground.
The American Cheese Society, a trade association based in Denver, also posted an alert to its members, assuring them it was mobilizing to learn more about the issue. Nora Weiser, executive director for the society, said the aging of cheese on wood boards has never been an issue in the past. She said state inspectors have generally just worked with cheesemakers to ensure the wood is being properly cleaned.
"We can't guess what they'll do. Their goal is safety, and that's our goal as well," Weiser said. But she added that the American Cheese Society wanted to "preserve this as a method of aging cheese."
Weiser wasn't immediately available for a comment on the FDA's latest statement.
Nancy Richards, owner of Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese, said she was shut down seven months ago after listeria was found in her plant, which uses wood to age cheese. She wasn't certain of the specific reason, but said she thinks the FDA has never liked wood for aging cheese.
"Do I like being the poster child for the wood board issue? No, not really," she said.
She added that she believes that wood boards that are well kept can be adequately cleaned.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.