A Tradition at Risk
Breaking news: late last week, the FDA issued a statement that wooden boards are not approved for use in cheese aging operations, declaring that "[t]he use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to [current Good Manufacturing Practices]". The heart of the FDA's position is cleanability: they don't view wood as a cleanable surface, and therefore will not approve of its use. You can read the details of the FDA's statement and the industry implications here and here.
Aging cheese on wood is a centuries-old tradition still practiced by cheesemakers across the world - including industry giants such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Comté and Gruyère. Banning wooden boards for this use stands to affect not just these imports, but nearly every traditional cheesemaker in the United States. Wood is a breathable material that encourages superior rind (and thereby flavor) development, as well as being a cost-effective, renewable resource. There are thousands of small businesses and jobs at risk as a result of this decree - not to mention a lot of safe, delicious cheese.
We firmly believe that cheese can be safely aged on wooden boards, and are working with industry professionals, the American Cheese Society and the Vermont Cheese Council to collect the scientific data necessary to create a persuasive response to the FDA's statement; ACS has already issued a position statement declaring intentions to validate this practice. There are already studies on the relative safety of using wooden boards for this purpose, including those cited by the FDA.
The FDA does not view last week's statement as a new rule or a rule change, but rather as a clarification of an existing rule - which means that this announcement isn't subject to the typical public comment period before going into effect. This overreach of an unaccountable bureaucracy poses a very real threat to our industry; this is a critical time for cheesemakers and every part of our industry's supply chain, including consumers.
The press has been quick to pick up this story, and the FDA issued a second statement yesterday afternoon, announcing their intention to "engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving." While this may look like backpedaling on their part, there is still a scope of work to be done to scientifically demonstrate the safety of this tradition, and many cheesemakers remain at risk.
Here's how you can help: contact your state senators and representative. Let them know that you support cheesemakers and believe that the safety of using wooden boards needs to be carefully evaluated. You can also help by signing this petition to lift the restriction on use of wooden boards, and by sharing that petition with your friends. Most of all, continue to support your local cheese artisans - they need it now more than ever!