Is the Food and Drug Administration waging a war on artisanal cheese?
The answer depends on your perspective. But this much is certain: The agency's answer to New York regulators about using wooden boards to age cheese has caused an uproar in the domestic industry and raised questions about the status of imported cheeses that use the same process.
The flap began after FDA inspectors cited several New York cheesemakers for using wooden surfaces to age their cheeses - a technique used for hundreds of years in the United States and even longer in Europe. New York's Department of Agriculture and Markets, which like other states has long allowed the practice, sought clarity from the FDA on the issue.
In response, Monica Metz, an official at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition's Dairy and Egg Branch, cited federal regulations, writing that using wooden boards for aging cheese doesn't conform to good manufacturing practices and risked spreading harmful pathogens.
"Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized," Metz wrote. "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."
Over the weekend, the Cheese Underground, a popular blog run by self-proclaimed cheese geek Jeanne Carpenter, detailed the angst among artisan cheesemakers over the FDA's assertion, which Carpenter called a "game changer."
"A sense of disbelief and distress is quickly rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community," she wrote.
It didn't take long for apocalyptic headlines and attacks on the "nanny state" to pop up on the Internet.
"FDA May Destroy American Artisan Cheese Industry," proclaimed Forbes. "FDA Rules Against Centuries Old Cheese-Making Process," reported the Daily Caller. "The FDA's Misguided War on Bacteria That Makes Cheese Taste Good," said a Slate column. The libertarian publication Reason called artisanal cheese producers "the latest foodmakers to face destruction from the Food and Drug Administration."
The FDA quickly tried to clarify its position Tuesday, saying that Metz's reply was merely a response to questions raised by New York regulators, not a statement of policy. In fact, the agency said it has no new policy concerning the use of wooden shelves in cheesemaking. Nor does the sweeping 2010 food-safety law address the issue.
Rather, the FDA said in a statement that its regulations state only that utensils and other surfaces that come into contact with food need to be able to be adequately cleaned and properly maintained.
"Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings," the agency said. "FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese. The FDA will engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving."
That explanation is unlikely to offer much clarity to specialty cheesemakers from New York to Wisconsin to California who are fretting at the prospect of federal regulation upending their livelihoods over an issue they say has never caused health problems.
"Eighty-five percent of my business revolves around aging cheese on wood," said Chris Roelli, a fourth-generation cheesemaker in Wisconsin. "This could be potentially devastating."
Roelli said the wood he uses while aging his cheddar blue cheese helps provide a distinct flavor, controls moisture and allows the rind to develop properly. In addition, he said, the process has been used an a wide variety of cheeses for centuries on both sides of the Atlantic with scant evidence of problems.
He and other cheesemakers pointed to various scientific studies that have concluded wooden boards using in cheese aging are safe. Last year, for example, the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research published a paper reviewing past research and concluded that "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."
This isn't the first time the FDA has tangled with the upscale cheese community. The agency struck a nerve last year when it began blocking imports of Mimolette, a Gouda-like cheese from France with a small but fervent following in the United States.
For centuries, microscopic mites have been part of the process for making the cannonball-shaped, electric orange cheese. But last spring, FDA inspectors began halting shipments of Mimolette at the border, stranding thousands of pounds of it in warehouses from California to New Jersey. Inspectors said they found too many cheese mites per square inch on Mimolette's cantaloupe-like rinds.
The FDA's actions set off a sort of Mimolette madness among cheese lovers, who called the blockage unwarranted and ill-advised.
On wooden boards, the lack of clarity from the FDA about how forcefully it intends to push the issue has left many artisan cheesemakers in limbo, said Rob Ralyea, a senior extension associate at Cornell University, who made the original inquiry about wood boards to state regulators on behalf of a local cheesemaker.
He said state inspectors have traditionally allowed wooden boards in cheese aging, given their long-standing and widespread use. But if the FDA does not, producers are facing a sort of quandary.
"It's hard to keep two regulatory agencies happy," he said. "You're kind of in a Catch-22 to some extent."
Roelli said he's hoping cheesemakers and the FDA can come to a compromise on the issue. If not, he fears his family's small business might not withstand the upheaval.
"Everything we're doing right now would have to change. If I'm not able to do that, I have to find a new way to survive," he said. "I don't have a Plan B."