When the European Union said it wanted to protect certain names of cheeses like Parmesan and Brie and allow those names to be used only on cheeses that came from those specific regions, I understood why. I also realized it could negatively affect American producers – especially the artisanal ones. That seems like a minor concern now because an FDA ruling about aging cheese on wood could make it illegal for America’s cheesemakers to even make many of their artisanal cheeses properly. 

Here’s what’s happening: as you know, many cheeses are aged. Some cheeses, like several types of blue or Parmesan, sit on wood as they do so. The wood is important to the aging process. It helps to control moisture. It even adds flavor. Without the wood, many cheeses would have a different taste and texture.

The FDA is concerned that wood is not “adequately cleanable” and could be a home for harmful bacteria to thrive. One New York state cheesemaker was told by the FDA it had to get rid of its wooden boards because an inspection had found Listeria monocytogenes on the wood. New York state regulators then contacted the FDA to find out if all cheesemakers needed to comply to this standard. Here’s part of what they were told.

“The porous nature of wood enables it to absorb and retain bacteria, therefore bacteria generally colonize not only the surface but also the inside layers of wood,” Monica Metz, chief of the dairy and egg branch of the Office of Food Safety, wrote in a letter to the New York State Agriculture Department at the beginning of this year.
Cheesemakers across the country became concerned that this may affect them all. How badly? The Cheese Notes blog has some statistics about wood aging from The American Cheese Society.
  • Almost 75 percent of cheesemakers from the three largest cheese-producing states age some of their cheese on wood.
  • In Wisconsin, 30 million pounds of cheese is aged on wood each year.
  • Over half the cheese imported to the U.S. is aged on wood.
But after The American Cheese Society issued a position statement about aging cheese on wood and dairy farmers and cheese lovers let their thoughts be known quite loudly on social media, Forbes says the FDA is backing down, for now. Yesterday, the FDA issued a clarification.
The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, 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.

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 has noted these concerns in inspectional findings. FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.

The FDA will engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving.

Our wood-aged cheeses seem safe for now. I’ll admit I did panic a little yesterday before the FDA’s clarification came out, and not just because some of my favorite cheese would be in danger. As you can see from the statistics, our small dairy farms that create artisanal cheeses would have been in danger, too. In fact, a ban on wood-aged cheeses could have had a rippled effect around the cheese world. So I’m very glad to see that the FDA has stated they will be engaging with the artisanal cheese-making community. Let’s hope the FDA listens.

Related on MNN:

The opinions expressed by MNN Bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of MNN.com. While we have reviewed their content to make sure it complies with our Terms and Conditions, MNN is not responsible for the accuracy of any of their information.