Oh, Cheeses: Fight Over Aged Cheese Leaves FDA In Stinky Situation

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Did you see the news about our nation’s war on cheese? Earlier this week, the FDA announced that it was banning the sale of cheeses aged on wooden boards. That would include many of the cheeses imported to the US, as well as much of the artisinal cheese made here. Now the FDA is backing away from that rule, but I think this is an important moment to think about where our priorities are. In short: the FDA should ban products, not food!

The FDA’s brief ban on wood-board-aged cheeses wasn’t so much a new rule as a wrong-headed executive decree issued in response to a NY Department of Agriculture request for a clarification as to the status of such cheeses. An FDA official replied that wood-board-aged cheeses were not in conformity with FDA policy because wood surfaces might not be able to be properly cleaned. This was just one bureaucrat’s interpretation of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety rule that all surfaces that come into contact with food need to be adequately cleanable. But it’s got a lot wrong with it!

First, there’s the science. It would be one thing to have a rule like this if people across the country were getting sick from wood-board-aged cheeses. But they’re not. In fact, there is research suggesting that the natural antibacterial properties of wood may help to keep harmful microbes at bay! There’s no reason to ban traditional, often artisinally-made products, put small producers out of business, and give Big Agriculture a free playing field, to prevent some minor, theoretical health risk that hasn’t happened.

I’m also concerned about the message the FDA is sending about microbes in general. Bacteria is not bad. Some bacteria is bad. But, in food, some types of bacteria are not only good for taste, they’re essential for the healthy maintenance of our digestion. Think about the famous San Francisco sourdough bread. Its distinctive sour flavor comes from bacteria in the dough – but no one is getting sick from it. We need to start making smarter distinctions between healthy and unhealthy microbes.

And that’s not all. Microbes are essential to cheese-making. Of course there’s the famous fact of mold on blue cheeses. Molds like that gave us penicillin! But bacteria are used throughout the cheesemaking process in ways you might not suspect. For instance: you may have heard that lactose-intolerant people can eat Parmesan cheese. But did you know that the reason is that, during the aging process, beneficial bacteria in the cheese eat up all of the lactose? That’s why unaged cheeses are the worst for lactose-intolerant people.

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This brings me to the most important point of all. Many of your favorite cheeses are aged on wooden boards. In addition to wonderful traditional European cheeses (Beaufort, Comté, Parmigiano-Reggiano) many American cheesemakers use this traditional process to create the prototypical Wisconsin Cheddar or Gouda. But you know who doesn’t age cheese on wood? Or, at all? Kraft Foods.

If we ban artisinal and traditional food practices like wood-board aging on the grounds that they’re not sanitary, the only foods we’ll be left with are the processed ones. I mean cheeses like Velveeta, cheeses (or cheese-like products) that are not aged, that are full of artificial colors and preservatives, that are not actual food. It seems like the FDA is prepared to take away our real food and leave us with “products” that lack nutritional value but are loaded with preservatives, artificial colors, and over-processed ingredients. The worry with these fake cheeses – those plastic-wrapped orange slices in your fridge, or those phony spreadable foil triangles – isn’t that they’ve got mould on them. On the contrary – it’s that you could leave them for a year on your counter and you’d never know the difference! Now, that should scare you.

It’s great that the FDA has decided to reconsider this ruling in light of the massive public backlash. But maybe this is a good opportunity for us all to rethink some of our attitudes. We need a more nuanced perspective on microbes. And each of us should declare a personal ban on artificial cheeses.