A sense of disbelief and distress is quickly rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community, as the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week announced it will not permit American cheesemakers to age cheese on wooden boards.

Recently, the FDA inspected several New York state cheesemakers and cited them for using wooden surfaces to age their cheeses. The New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets’ Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services, which (like most every state in the U.S., including Wisconsin), has allowed this practice, reached out to FDA for clarification on the issue. A response was provided by Monica Metz, Branch Chief of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s (CFSAN) Dairy and Egg Branch.

In the response, Metz stated that the use of wood for cheese ripening or aging is considered an unsanitary practice by FDA, and a violation of FDA’s current Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations. Here’s an excerpt:
  
“Microbial pathogens can be controlled if food facilities engage in good manufacturing practice. Proper cleaning and sanitation of equipment and facilities are absolutely necessary to ensure that pathogens do not find niches to reside and proliferate. Adequate cleaning and sanitation procedures are particularly important in facilities where persistent strains of pathogenic microorganisms like Listeria monocytogenes could be found. The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP requirements, which require that “all plant equipment and utensils shall be so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable, and shall be properly maintained.” 21 CFR 110.40(a). Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized. The porous structure of wood enables it to absorb and retain bacteria, therefore bacteria generally colonize not only the surface but also the inside layers of wood. The shelves or boards used for aging make direct contact with finished products; hence they could be a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms in the finished products.”  

The most interesting part of the FDA’s statement it that it does not consider this to be a new policy, but rather an enforcement of an existing policy. And worse yet, FDA has reiterated that it does not intend to change this policy.

In an email to industry professionals, Rob Ralyea, Senior Extension Associate in the Department of Food Science and the Pilot Plant Manager at Cornell University in New York, says: “According to the FDA this is merely proper enforcement of the policy that was already in place. While the FDA has had jurisdiction in all food plants, it deferred cheese inspections almost exclusively to the states. This has all obviously changed under FSMA.”

Ah, FSMA. For those of you not in the know, the Food Safety Modernization Act is the most sweeping reform of American food safety laws in generations. It was signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011 and aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it.

While most cheesemakers have, perhaps, begrudgingly accepted most of what has been coming down the FSMA pike, including the requirement of HACCP plans and increased federal regulations and inspections, no one expected this giant regulation behemoth to virtually put a stop to innovation in the American artisanal cheese movement.

Many of the most awarded and well-respected American artisan cheeses are currently aged on wooden boards. American Cheese Society triple Best in Show winner Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin is cured on wooden boards. Likewise for award-winners Cabot Clothbound in Vermont, current U.S. Champion cheese Marieke Gouda, and 2013 Best in Show Runner-Up Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar.

Wisconsin cheesemaker Chris Roelli says the FDA’s “clarified” stance on using wooden boards is a “potentially devastating development” for American cheesemakers. He and his family have spent the past eight years re-building Roelli Cheese into a next-generation American artisanal cheese factory. Just last year, he built what most would consider to be a state-of-the-art aging facility into the hillside behind his cheese plant. And Roelli, like hundreds of American artisanal cheesemaekrs, has developed his cheese recipes specifically to be aged on wooden boards.

“The very pillar that we built our niche business on is the ability to age our cheese on wood planks, an art that has been practiced in Europe for thousands of years,” Roelli says. Not allowing American cheesemakers to use this practice puts them “at a global disadvantage because the flavor produced by aging on wood can not be duplicated. This is a major game changer for the dairy industry in Wisconsin, and many other states.”

As if this weren’t all bad enough, the FDA has also “clarified” – I’m really beginning to dislike that word – that in accordance with FSMA, a cheesemaker importing cheese to the United States is subject to the same rules and inspection procedures as American cheesemakers.

Therefore, Cornell University’s Ralyea says, “It stands to reason that if an importer is using wood boards, the FDA would keep these cheeses from reaching our borders until the cheese maker is in compliance. The European Union authorizes and allows the use of wood boards. Further, the great majority of cheeses imported to this country are in fact aged on wooden boards and some are required to be aged on wood by their standard of identity (Comte, Beaufort and Reblochon, to name a few). Therefore, it will be interesting to see how these specific cheeses will be dealt with when it comes to importation into the United States.”

Ralyea continues: “While most everyone agrees that Listeria is a major concern to the dairy industry, it appears that some food safety agencies interpret the science to show that wood boards can be maintained in a sanitary fashion to allow for their use for cheese aging, while others (e.g., the US FDA) believe that a general ban of any wooden materials in food processing facilities is the better approach to assure food safety. At this point, it seems highly unlikely that any new research data or interpretations will change the FDA policies in place.”

In fact, many research papers do in fact conclude that wooden boards are safe. In 2013, the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research published a paper on the subject, concluding: “Considering the beneficial effects of wood boards on cheese ripening and rind formation, the use of wood boards does not seem to present any danger of contamination by pathogenic bacteria as long as a thorough cleaning procedure is followed.” You can read the whole report on pages 8-9 by clicking on this link.

Interesting side note: Health Canada does not currently have any regulations prohibiting aging and ripening cheese on wood, so apparently if we want to eat most American or European artisan cheeses, we’ll need to drive across the border to do so.

So what’s next? The American Cheese Society has mobilized its Regulatory & Academic Committee to learn more about this issue, and to ensure its members’ interests are represented. The ACS promises to keep us apprised of developments. In the meantime, if you are a cheesemaker, and your operation is inspected and cited for the use of wooden surfaces, please contact the ACS office (720-328-2788 or info@cheesesociety.org).

76 thoughts on “Game Changer: FDA Rules No Wooden Boards in Cheese Aging

  1. Is there any scientific evidence this is real threat of contamination? I'm no expert but I believe there is evidence that wood has anti microbial properties. I don't like conspiracy theories but this smacks to me of big cheese getting legislation that suits it and pushing smaller manufacturers to the wall

  2. similar to the thought that wooden cutting boards are unsanitary, ah yes, that was proven wrong. Junk food is more dangerous.

  3. Ahh, the FDA. Ayn Rand's Ellesworth Toohey would be proud: the slow murder of innovation under the guise of keeping us “safe.” Of course, people in the country are so terrified of their own shadows that it only take the mention of the word “bacteria” for them to flock to the pharmacist for drugs. Well, people, it's for the greater good, don't you know. Say it with me… The greater good. The greater good. The greater good. Listeria is bad. The greater good. Corporations are people. The greater good. The head of the FDA is an old Monsanto employee. The greater good.

  4. That is complete and utter hokum. Not only will our cheeses now lose out in competition against European cheeses for the world market, but we will have far fewer interesting and delicious cheeses to eat ourselves. What a sad day for cheese.

  5. So what are they supposed to use? carcinogenic plastic?

    Idiotic ignorant and knee-jerk.

  6. If you live in a big cheese producing state, contact your Senators and representatives and ask them what they're doing to defend a key state industry. For example, in VT, contact Senators Leahy and Sanders (@SenatorLeahy and @SenSanders on Twitter). hashtag #SaveOurCheese

  7. how about aging each cheese wheel on a new “Cutting board” and between uses, either
    planing off a 1/4 inch of the board or disposing of the boards, that way you could age on wood but,
    have the board surface in contact be “Fresh” and
    “Clean”.

  8. As a frequent British visitor to America over the last 40 years, the proliferation of craft and artisinal cheese making was a cause of celebration. The international reputation of U.S. cheese used to be frankly appalling. Now with this step the FDA show how far removed they are from international practise and thinking. And of course ensure that American cheese makers will once again have no export market.

  9. This is so wrong – The definition of good food from the FDA is really dead food, making sure that anything in it such as beneficial bacterias is killed. Our supermarkets are becoming a showcase for boiled, pasteurized, irradiated, ammonia and pesticides sprayed, etc… dead food – all in the name of safety until the next food recall because, really, it still does not work.

  10. So ridiculous. I blame Congress, who write laws so sloppily that agencies can make major changes in industries without the people's voices being heard.

  11. This is the same FDA that approves prescription drugs that kill more than they cure? The same FDA that allows chicken feet, feathers, and bone product to be pressed into a “Chicken Patty”? Really. I suppose no more new oak barrels for bourbon?

  12. Lol, Leahy and Sanders love government intrusion into your life and your business. Don't waste your time.

  13. Let me get this straight–the FDA can approve a thousand toxic chemicals be added to our food and approve GMOs that make their own neurotoxins, but they ban wooden shelves for cheese ripening? No, I don't feel safer. Heads should roll at the FDA. C'mon, Pres. Obama, wake up.

  14. It doesn', nothing can live in the c02 and alcohol which is produced through fermentation

  15. I hate cheese that is sliced and wrapped in plastic. So now are we going to have cheese aged on plastic? If not,
    will cheese now have subtle metal overtones?

  16. So they can't just change the laws for cheese and make them similar to those that allow raw milk (i.e. that you drink it at your own risk)?
    They let CHEMICALS infiltrate our food DYES, and GMO'S….. oh, but aging cheese using a thousands year old process is WRONG??? WTF!!!

  17. Waste THEIR time and get them out – if they will only pander to “big cheese” maybe someone can send the representatives a “gift”?

  18. Welcome to Obama socialist America! we destroy small business in favor of big corporations and unions! we destroy artists in favor of mass produced garbage! why do you ask, you can get kick backs from one person- big corporations and unions can “contribute” to your ongoing reelection and endless government expansion. Look at Chicago!

  19. What happens if Americans simply STOP buying ANY cheese that is NOT aged on wood? And if “Big Cheese” adopts some “clean” methodology such as plastic of stainless steel, boycott the product. If big business is losing money because of some stupid FDA rule (sorry for the redundancy) then THEY will force a change.

  20. Food safety regs are not in place to protect the consumer, they are in place to protect big business from completion.

  21. Two questions:

    1. If they are not allowed to use wood as a surface, then what is/are the alternative(s)?
    2. Who did Monica Metz work for before the FDA?

    The answers to these two may expose who is really behind this tripe “regulation” for a process that has worked for thousands of years. Big oil or big pharma is behind this, I can almost guarantee it.

  22. Was there actually a problem there, in any shape, way or form, before they came up with this piece of genius?

  23. Thanks Obama. Why would anyone who votes democrat be surprised that they're taxing and regulating everything in sight? By the way, I have an ocean front bridge to sell you. Don't worry about cost, though, it's for the poor so it MUST be legit … 😛

  24. This needs to be challenged until,and unless, the FDA can show the scientific justification for this policy. As in objective, peer-reviewed, triple-checked scientific justification.

    But since this administration doesn't do actual science — their modus is to simply sneer “the science is settled” — a lawsuit or six would be in order. The words “arbitrary and capricious” should figure prominently.

  25. The Libertarian Party of Wisconsin and our candidates will probably be putting out a statement on this in support of our Wisconsin cheese-makers. Thanks for the heads-up.

    http://www.lpwi.org

  26. Wooden Cutting Boards Found Safer Than Plastic

    EVERY now and then a scientific finding flies in the face of conventional wisdom. And so it was with an accidental discovery by microbiologists at the University of Wisconsin's Food Research Institute that wooden cutting boards kill food-poisoning bacteria that survive very nicely on the plastic boards that have been widely promoted for years as safer than wood.

    The scientists, Dean O. Cliver and Nese O. Ak, stumbled upon the finding while seeking ways to decontaminate wooden boards and make them as “safe” as plastic. Much to their surprise, they found that when boards were purposely contaminated with organisms like Salmonella, Listeria and Escherichia coli that are common causes of food poisoning, 99.9 percent of the bacteria died off within three minutes on the wooden boards, while none died on the plastic ones.

    When contaminated boards were left unwashed overnight at room temperature, bacterial counts increased on the plastic, but none of the organisms could be recovered from the wooden boards the next morning.

    It had long been believed that disease-causing bacteria from raw foods like chicken would soak into a wooden board and be difficult to remove, even when washed; then when other foods, like salad ingredients, that are eaten raw are cut on the same board, the dangerous bacteria could be picked up by them and transferred alive to the consumer. Plastic was assumed to be safer because it is nonporous and contaminating organisms could be readily washed off.

    Based on the new studies, Dr. Cliver said, “Wood may be preferable in that small lapses in sanitary practices are not as dangerous on wood as on plastic.” But he cautioned against being “sloppy about safety” and warned cooks to be sure to wash off cutting surfaces after cutting meat, chicken or fish, whether the surface used is wood or plastic.

    The researchers tested boards made from seven different species of trees and four types of plastic and found similar results: wood was safer than plastic, regardless of the materials used. Thus far, however, the researchers have been unable to isolate the agents in wood that make it so inhospitable to bacteria.

  27. EVERY now and then a scientific finding flies in the face of conventional wisdom. And so it was with an accidental discovery by microbiologists at the University of Wisconsin's Food Research Institute that wooden cutting boards kill food-poisoning bacteria that survive very nicely on the plastic boards that have been widely promoted for years as safer than wood.

    The scientists, Dean O. Cliver and Nese O. Ak, stumbled upon the finding while seeking ways to decontaminate wooden boards and make them as “safe” as plastic. Much to their surprise, they found that when boards were purposely contaminated with organisms like Salmonella, Listeria and Escherichia coli that are common causes of food poisoning, 99.9 percent of the bacteria died off within three minutes on the wooden boards, while none died on the plastic ones.

    When contaminated boards were left unwashed overnight at room temperature, bacterial counts increased on the plastic, but none of the organisms could be recovered from the wooden boards the next morning.

    It had long been believed that disease-causing bacteria from raw foods like chicken would soak into a wooden board and be difficult to remove, even when washed; then when other foods, like salad ingredients, that are eaten raw are cut on the same board, the dangerous bacteria could be picked up by them and transferred alive to the consumer. Plastic was assumed to be safer because it is nonporous and contaminating organisms could be readily washed off.

    Based on the new studies, Dr. Cliver said, “Wood may be preferable in that small lapses in sanitary practices are not as dangerous on wood as on plastic.” But he cautioned against being “sloppy about safety” and warned cooks to be sure to wash off cutting surfaces after cutting meat, chicken or fish, whether the surface used is wood or plastic.

    The researchers tested boards made from seven different species of trees and four types of plastic and found similar results: wood was safer than plastic, regardless of the materials used. Thus far, however, the researchers have been unable to isolate the agents in wood that make it so inhospitable to bacteria.

  28. Do they have proof that people got Listeria infections from cheese? I think the FDA needs to look at different focus for their rule enforcement.

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