Do not mess with our cheese.
Artisanal cheese makers, consumers and politicians have come out in force to deliver that message to the Food and Drug Administration after an FDA official said the act of ripening cheese on wooden shelves is not sanitary and does not conform to FDA requirements. That statement, made in a document interpreting food safety law, threw into limbo a practice that has been integral to cheese-making for centuries.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., blasted the FDA, saying a wood ban would seriously threaten New York State’s burgeoning artisanal cheese economy, which produced 754 million pounds of cheese in 2012. The American Cheese Society released a statement outlining the safety and necessity of aging cheese on wood. Thousands of consumers took to social media and signed petitions urging the FDA not to interfere with the age-old process.
By late Wednesday, the FDA appeared to backpedal on its stance, saying it had never banned wood in cheese-making and had never cited anyone for using it.
Still, cheese makers are not feeling confident the issue has been resolved.
The FDA’s statement, which said it would engage cheese makers “to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving,” left many in the industry wondering whether some sort of ban or other legislation was forthcoming.
Yancey’s Fancy, an artisan cheese maker in Corfu, uses wooden boards to cure its Gouda, chastinet and bergenost natural cheeses. It is about spend more than $20 million on a project to expand its current operation and add another plant in Pembroke. As part of the expansion, which is expected to create at least 50 new jobs, it is developing at least four new cheese varieties that would rely on wooden boards for ripening.
“You don’t want to be in a position where you’re spending all this money and hiring all these people and then someone comes in and says, ‘You can’t do this anymore,’ ” said Brian Bailey, vice president of operations and master cheese maker at the company.
“Naturally cured and rinded cheeses are a big part of what we do,” he said.
Jill Forster, owner of Nickel City Cheese & Mercantile on Elmwood Avenue, said taking wood out of the cheese-curing process would “destroy” the cheese industry.
She said more than 45 percent of the cheese in her retail shop is aged on wood.
Her cheeses come from around the world, and the FDA wasn’t clear on whether it would prevent wood-cured cheese from being imported to the United States.
Wood-ripening imparts flavors that cannot be achieved on plastic or metal slabs and is required for certain food quality certifications in other countries, according to the American Cheese Society.
“You don’t even eat the rind – the cheese never comes into contact with the wood,” Forster said.
Wegmans does not use wooden boards at its cheese caves but said it plans to start using them as its operation advances.
The FDA’s concerns about wood ripening came to light after listeria, a type of bacteria that can cause food poisoning, was found on a wooden board at Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese, near Ithaca. None of the bacteria was found on any of the company’s cheese, and no illness was associated with the finding.
Though owner Nancy Taber Richards admitted quality control issues led to the contamination, the FDA inspector told Richards she could not reopen her operation until all of the wooden shelves were removed.
The decree that wooden shelves do not conform to FDA requirements came in a letter from Monica Metz, chief of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s Dairy and Egg Branch to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services after it asked for clarification on the use of wood boards.
The FDA has since said Metz’s letter was not a policy statement.
That prompted New York’s senators, Kirsten Gillibrand and Schumer, to call for crystal-clear guidelines from the FDA stating cheese makers can continue using wooden boards without fear of citation.
The controversy surrounds the interpretation of law CFR 110.40(a) of the Code of Federal Regulations that say surfaces contacting food must be “adequately cleanable.” Metz cited studies in her letter that said listeria had survived on wooden ripening boards even after they had been cleaned and sanitized.
The cheese industry maintains that no food-borne illness has ever been tied to wooden cheese boards, and that they are completely safe when maintained properly.