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Why The FDA's New Cheese Rule Stinks (and Not in a Good Way)

June 10, 2014

These shelves of graukäse, or AustrianTyrolean “grey cheese,” would be an impossibility in the United States under new enforcement of an FDA rule. Photo credit: Eising Studio/StockFood

As Gianaclis Caldwell writes in “Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking,” aging cheese on wooden boards is a time-honored practice that spans centuries. Wood not only helps maintain humidity without producing condensation, it can also “impart its unique stamp of locality—terroir, as it is most often referred to today.” (In layman’s terms, wooden boards contribute nuanced flavors.) "[No] inspector will be shaking their head at your lovely, hand-planed wood shelves," Caldwell continues.

Well, that’s no longer true. This week, the Food and Drug Administration announced a ban on aging cheese on wooden planks, claiming that “wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized.” The FDA didn’t offer any scientific evidence supporting the claim.

Artisanal cheese makers quickly set their phasers to rage.

"There is no science behind any of this… It’s like [the FDA is] declaring war on all small producers," cheese maker Mary Falk, audibly upset, told us. Falk and her husband operate the LoveTree Farmstead in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, where they age wheels of raw sheep’s milk cheese, cow’s milk cheese, and others (that have been described as some of the world’s best) on wooden planks. As far as she knows, no one has ever been sickened by her cheeses.

"I’ve always been this easygoing moderate, but now I’m going: This is just blatant fascism. Are we in Russia?"

Plastic shelving, Falk said, is just as likely to be contaminated with bacteria as wood. As for the possibility of aging cheese on steel shelves? “You’d end up with a slime ball,” she deadpanned.

Falk is especially frustrated by the FDA’s opinion that this isn’t a new policy, but rather a clarification of existing policy requiring clean aging surfaces (though up through late 2012, the FDA has tolerated wood planks). As a result, the FDA doesn’t have to go through the usual notice and comment-making process, which as Forbes notes is “the process through which an agency like the FDA lets the public know they are planning on issuing a rule, and the public is then given an opportunity to comment on that rule.” 

In the same Forbes article, author Greg McNeal writes that “small businesses who specialize in artisan cheeses will likely be destroyed by this decision.” It could also bring an end to the import of European cheeses like Beaufort, Comté, and Parmigiano Reggiano, which are all commonly ripened or aged on wood.

Falk worries that there’s a sinister force behind the decision. 

"When things are not based on food science and they appear to be capricious, then you have to look at who’s benefitting from this," she said, noting that corporate outfits like Kraft don’t age cheeses on wooden planks. "And who’s benefitting is big industry."

It’s a bold claim. But Falk is right that the FDA’s clarification of its cheese-making polices could wreak havoc on both the American and imported cheese industries. And it could profoundly affect the way you eat (and/or hoard) cheese.