Will Americans have to leave the U.S. for a bite of good cheese? Thankfully, no – but for many in the cheese industry, it seemed like a close call.
Recent communication from the Food and Drug Administration sparked concerns that the government would disallow cheese from being aged on wooden boards. But instead of kicking off an aged-cheese witch hunt in America, the FDA announced yesterday that it plans to "engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheese can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving."
"The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA [Food Safety Modernization Act] requirement in effect that addresses this issue," the government agency said in a statement. "Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves."
Concern regarding the banning of cheese arose when the American Cheese Society released a statement by FDA's Branch Chief Monica Metz that seemed to signal a crackdown on the use of wooden shelves. "Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized," Metz wrote in a letter to the New York State Agriculture Department.
When making cheese, wood controls moisture and allows microbes key to creating flavor to flourish. For some cheese makers concerned about sanitation, there is worry that wood surfaces may allow undesirable bacteria to grow as well. As a result, many larger scale cheese makers have switched to plastic and stainless steel surfaces. However, other cheese makers consider wood to be key to their craft.
"For centuries, cheese makers have been creating delicious, nutritious, unique cheeses aged on wood," the American Cheese Society said in a statement. "No foodborne illness outbreak has been found to be caused by the use of wood as an aging surface."
As the cheese scare attracted press coverage and social media buzz, the FDA was quick to distance itself from its apparent previous position. However, plans to "engage with the artisanal cheese-making community" may signal new regulations on the horizon.
Still, with the anti-regulation backlash the cheese industry stirred up, the FDA's power may ultimately be checked by cheese makers and cheese-lovers dedicated to keeping dairy on the shelves -- both of the wooden and grocery variety.