A cheesy regulation

Bureaucratic overreach almost took some fine local and imported cheese off your table, and it still might.

Artisanal cheese makers were alarmed last week that they may have to stop aging their cheese on wooden shelves due to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. An FDA official’s interpretation of a safety rule said wooden boards or shelves can’t be properly sanitized and thus don’t conform to food safety regulations.

The issue might be laughable if it did not have the potential to hurt cheese makers, who are entrepreneurs with a mission to give the world wonderful things to eat.

Cheese means economic growth and job creation for this state, as noted by New York’s U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who are urging the FDA to issue better guidance for cheese aging. Statistics from the Department of Agriculture show that the state produced 754 million pounds of cheese in 2012.

In our area, cheese makers who use wooden boards include Asgaard Farm and Dairy in AuSable Forks and Sugar House Creamery in Upper Jay.

Not all cheese is produced in new facilities stuffed with stainless-steel and high-tech electronics. Artisanal cheese makers, especially, tend to make many of their cheese varieties the way they have been safely produced for centuries: by aging the wheels on wooden boards. For some types, the wooden boards are even required. Because wood can add flavor to the cheese during aging, it is needed to season some cheeses properly.

To its credit, the FDA backtracked on its stance last week, noting it hasn’t taken any enforcement action on the wooden shelves and is open to evidence that cheese could be aged on wood safely. The agency later released a statement saying its recent communication on the issue was not intended as an official policy statement, but was provided as background information on the use of wooden shelving.

While that’s a start, the FDA should drop the policy shift.

Remember that cheese, like yogurt, is a product of bacteria, of fermentation. Yes, wooden cheese boards are full of bacteria – the kind that makes cheese taste good. If bad bacteria overwhelm the good ones and make people sick, then that’s a problem that requires action, and the government does have a responsibility to make sure food manufacturers run clean operations to prevent the spread of disease or harmful parasites. However, that doesn’t mean ruining good food made by responsible people in traditionally safe ways.

Responsible cheese makers take steps to ensure cleanliness. Margot Brooks of Sugar House Creamery described how she washes the boards in between batches with scalding-hot water, then kiln-dries them in a room with a super-hot stove.

The FDA basically requires that surfaces and utensils that touch food be “adequately cleanable” and “properly maintained.

“Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement,” the agency stated Wednesday. “Since 2010, FDA inspections have found Listeria monocytogenes in more than 20 percent of inspections of artisanal cheese makers. However, the FDA does not have data that directly associates these instances of contamination with the use of wood shelving.”

While this incidence of listeria is somewhat alarming, the statement also admits that available scientific studies do not necessarily blame it on the wooden aging process.

The European Union and Canada do not prohibit the use of wooden boards for aging cheese. That’s important because both are famous for having regulators that can be just as fierce – if not more so – than those in the United States.

Plus, a ban on wood-aged cheese would prevent Americans from being able to get such great imports as Parmigiano Reggiano.

If the FDA really does want cheese makers to stop using wood and switch to plastic or steel shelves, it would not be cheap. Cheese makers have noted it would be expensive for them to switch to other surfaces. Thousands of dollars could be spent on something that may not even be necessary.

At Sugar House Creamery, this new business started last year by a pair of young farmers could be even more severely endangered. The cheese Ms. Brooks and Alexander Eaton chose as their signature variety is a kind aged on wood, and they built a cave lined with wooden shelves in which to let it ripen for six months. Their first batch just emerged and is for sale now. To squash the fruits of their loving labor and hard-earned craft would be a great shame.

So, too, would be to remove some wonderful cheeses from American farmers markets and grocery shelves.