It’s been a wild ride the last couple of weeks for cheese lovers and artisan cheese producers. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration appeared to signal that it would ban the aging of cheese on wooden boards in the United States. Doing so would effectively end most small batch (and even good-sized batch) independent production of artisan cheeses in America. By extension, it would also end the import of many European cheeses, most of which are aged on wood—including Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Wooden shelves are crucial to the production of many cheeses. John Umhoefer, Executive Director with the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association told Wisconsin Radio Network that, “For many types of cheese, especially when you want to have a nice rinded cheese, wood is the best surface to rest that cheese on for the many months or years that you have the cheese in play. It wicks away moisture from the cheese and delivers it back when needed. It really breathes along with the cheese.” In fact, many artisanal cheesemakers have developed their recipes specifically for aging on wood.
Wednesday, after a nationwide outcry from cheesemakers and cheese lovers, the FDA issued a “clarification” on using wood shelving in artisanal cheesemaking. On its website, it stated, somewhat defensively, that “we have not and are not prohibiting or banning the long-standing practice of using wood shelving in artisanal cheese. Nor does the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) require any such action. Reports to the contrary are not accurate.”
This apparent reversal points up a couple of things. First, how the Internet has exponentially accelerated the sharing of information and the response time and effectiveness of activism. Letter writing campaigns and marching in the streets have nothing on social media and emails.
Second, sadly, it highlights misplaced priorities. The American diet is increasingly driven by agribusiness and highly processed, industrial foods—edible foodlike substances, as Michael Pollan has dubbed them. As a result, obesity has become the second leading preventable cause of death. Perhaps the FDA needs to spend a little more time examining the health threat of big food and a little less questioning cheesemaking practices that have served us well for thousands of years.
Cheesemakers and cheese lovers aren’t out of the woods yet. The FDA closed out its clarification with this ominously ambiguous statement: “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 these concerns have been noted in its inspectional findings. However, the FDA will engage with the artisanal cheesemaking community, state officials and others to learn more about current practices and discuss the safety of aging certain types of cheeses on wooden shelving, as well as to invite stakeholders to share any data or evidence they have gathered related to safety and the use of wood surfaces. We welcome this open dialogue.”