By STEPHANIE STROM and KIM SEVERSON
June 10, 2014
A decision by the Food and Drug Administration to question the use of wooden planks to age some cheeses has produced a stink that rivals Limburger, prompting an uproar among the artisanal cheese makers and consumers who fear they might lose access to products like obscure blue cheeses from Vermont and imported Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The agency recently interpreted a decades-old regulation requiring that cheese-making equipment be designed and constructed of material that is “adequately cleanable” in ways that made it appear that wood, which has been used for centuries to help age cheese, was no longer sanitary enough.
“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.
For some styles of cheese, wood is an essential part of the process. It aids in the control of moisture that helps form rinds on big wheels of English Cheddar and small, delicate washed-rind cheeses. It also provides an amenable surface for the microbes that add flavor and character to cheese.
But the wrong bacteria can sicken consumers, which is what the F.D.A. was trying to control with its initial decision.
Cheese makers from California to Vermont took to social media in the last few days to express outrage. The hashtag #saveourcheese surfaced on Twitter. Chefs and cheese lovers took to Facebook and blogs to rebut the notion that wood was harmful.
Tuesday evening, the agency seemed to backtrack, saying that it planned to work with artisanal cheese makers “to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving.”
To take away wood as part of the cheese-making process would mean wholesale change for more than a third of the cheese makers in America and could have implications for imported cheese, about half of which is aged on wood, said Nora Weiser, the executive director of the American Cheese Society, an organization that represents the nation’s farmstead and artisanal cheese makers.
In Wisconsin alone, more than 33 million pounds of cheese — of the 2.7 billion pounds produced in the state — is sitting on wooden shelving, she said.
“Wood is a perfectly safe surface,” she said.
The F.D.A., however, says wood could be a potentially hazardous surface, and recently cracked down on one small cheese maker in New York, which prompted state officials to seek clarification from the agency.
The issue began during an F.D.A. inspection in 2012, when the Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese Company in Trumansburg, N.Y., was barred from making cheese after Listeria monocytogenes, a type of bacteria that can cause fatal illnesses, was found on one of the wooden boards on which cheese was aged, as well as on other surfaces.
Ms. Taber Richards cleaned and disinfected her equipment and kitchen yet again, conferring with the F.D.A. about what cleaning products and processes she was using. “It was kind of like trying to hit a moving target in the dark,” she said. “I never knew explicitly what they wanted done.”
So in October 2013, she was surprised to receive a letter from the F.D.A. demanding that she agree to a consent decree stipulating that she could not receive, prepare, process, pack, hold or distribute food until she developed a program to rid her operations of listeria once and for all or face a lawsuit.
“I thought I had been cooperative and responsive,” she said. “But when I called, they said, ‘You didn’t get rid of your wooden aging shelves.’ Well, no one had ever told me I needed to get rid of them.”
State regulators then wanted to know whether that prohibition on wood applied to all cheese makers, and in January, Ms. Metz sent them her interpretation of the federal regulation requiring equipment that was “adequately cleanable.”
She did not definitively state that wood could not be used to process cheese, however, and cheese makers in New York continued to fume.
“Were they going to enforce a ban on wood in New York but not Wisconsin, in Pennsylvania but not France?” said Robert Ralyea, a senior extension associate in the department of food science at Cornell University and a cheese maker himself. “All we knew was that a ban was enforced on Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese.”
So on Thursday, Mr. Ralyea started an email blast “to a relatively large crowd,” which lit up social media and the blogosphere.
Vince Razionale of Jasper Hill in Greensboro, Vt., where a series of aging caves are lined with wooden shelving that hold prizewinning cheeses, said, “We’re feeling really nervous about this whole situation. Like a lot of other cheese makers, we’re feeling very exposed.”
Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, now plans to attach an amendment to an agriculture appropriations bill moving through Congress that would prohibit the F.D.A. from spending any money to enforce a ban on the use of wooden shelves in cheese making. He said he expected widespread support from lawmakers in Wisconsin, New York and other states with large cheese production.
“The F.D.A. is mixing up the hygienic practices of a producer with the materials being used in production,” Mr. Welch said. “If you have an unhygienic operation in the production of food, probably everything is going to be infected, so is the F.D.A. going to ban the use of stainless steel when it finds listeria on it?”
He said the issue was creating a tremendous amount of financial uncertainty among cheese makers, noting that Jasper Hill would have to spend about $20 million to replace the wooden shelving it uses for aging.
He said a ban on wood also would affect the taste of cheeses that rely on it for aging and kick off an international trade war. “Many European cheeses are aged on wood, so if the F.D.A. enforces this rule, it will mean those cheeses cannot be imported into the United States and that will surely lead to retaliation,” Mr. Welch said.
The statement issued by the F.D.A. on Tuesday noted that the ban was not a new policy because the regulation on “adequately cleanable” utensils and surfaces dated back to 1986. “Historically, the F.D.A. has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings,” the agency said, adding that it was “always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.”
Mr. Welch snorted when the statement was read to him. “They should be able to give a definitive point of view one way or the other rather than creating more ambiguity and uncertainty with their wishy-washy statement,” he said.