The FDA, Cheese, and Wooden Boards

For a brief time, it appeared that the FDA was regulating artisan cheeses out of existence, but they seem to have backed down, at least for now.

Last week:

“the FDA recently inspected several New York cheesemakers and cited them for using wooden surfaces to age 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.

According to Metz, the use of wooden shelves for aging cheese runs counter to FDA requirements stipulating “all plant equipment and utensils shall be so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable.” In the FDA’s estimation, there is no possible way that wooden shelves or boards can be adequately cleaned and sanitized. From Metz:

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 fact that wood’s porousness allows it to retain bacteria is actually one reason why cheesemakers use this method. Contra the 19th century, not all bacteria is bad. Cheese, yogurt, kombucha, tempeh, and other foods containing live active cultures can actually be incredibly beneficial for humans’ immune system and overall health. But what about the bad bacteria—is there any validity to the FDA’s claim that bad bacteria can’t be properly purged from wooden boards?

The University of Tennessee Forest Extension says that while “some have suggested that it is ‘just common sense’ that a porous material like wood would be harder to keep clean than plastic,” testing doesn’t necessarily support this assumption. The Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research compiled research on the subject here—there’s been a lot of it from France, unsurprisingly—and it suggests that proper cleaning and sanitization methods cansufficiently wipe out bacteria from various kinds of wooden boards. A 1992 study showed those using wooden cutting boards at home were less than half as likely as average to contract salmonellosis, while those using synthetic (plastic or glass) cutting boards were about twice as likely to do so. “


“When the New York Agriculture Department asked for clarification, Monica Metz, an official with the FDA’s Dairy and Egg Branch, said the wooden shelves didn’t conform to FDA “good manufacturing practice” regulations. But the FDA clarified Tuesday that it had never taken action against a cheesemaker based solely on the use of wood. It’s just that these particular wooden shelves at these particular places were poorly cleaned.

Oh my. Has this all just been so much dairy industry hysteria? Or is the FDA backpedaling amidst the criticism? From the FDA’s statement yesterday, it sounds to me like more of the latter.

“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,” Lauren Sucher, an FDA spokeswoman, said in a statement.

“Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings,” she said. “FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.”

My takeaway from all this seems to be that the FDA isn’t mulling some major push to end aging cheese on wooden surfaces. But if it comes across it in (routine?) inspections, cheesemakers may be cited.

Good for the FDA for backing down,” wrote Forbes contributor Greg McNeal. “Although it’s unfortunate that they are dodging accountability by claiming they did not change their policy.” ”



cornsyrup ad1It reminds me somehow of the history of corn syrup– once advertised as cleaner, purer, and more sanitary than honey, as though that were a good thing.

In The Science of Eating (published in 1919) we read that ” Food manufacturers declare their chemical preservatives are ‘harmless.’ Scientists are found to agree with them. Thus they set up arguments of such plausible and convincing character that the government has been prevailed upon to permit them to employ chemicals in the manufacture of a hundred food products.’


And here: 

the government, of course, must be involved somewhere, because whenever basic, simple, organic realities are tampered with and made more complex and costly, we can look to the meddling hand of government stirring that pot:

” No single event marked the shift from eating food to eating nutrients, though in retrospect a little-noticed political dust-up in Washington in 1977 seems to have helped propel American food culture down this dimly lighted path. Responding to an alarming increase in chronic diseases linked to diet — including heart disease, cancer and diabetes — a Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, headed by George McGovern, held hearings on the problem and prepared what by all rights should have been an uncontroversial document called ”Dietary Goals for the United States.” (Michael Pollan, source at the link above).

For a really interesting look at how the FDA reaches conclusions about our food supply, try researching the source of botulism and honey, the reasoning behind the instruction never to give honey to infants under the age of one.

Unfortunately, celebrations should not be accompanied by complacency:

“There is a less optimistic version, however. It happens that a large number of editors, commentators, and others among the chattering classes are both personally interested in the availability of fine cheese and familiar enough with the process by which it is made to be un-cowed by claims of superior agency expertise. That might also be true of a few other issues here and there — cottage food sold at farmer’s markets, artisanal brewing practices — but it’s inevitably not going to be true of hundreds of other issues that arise under the new Food Safety Modernization Act. In a similar way, the outcry againstCPSIA, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, rose to a politically effective level only on a selected few issues (publishers and libraries got a fix so that older children’s books would not have to be trashed; youthmotorsports eventually obtained an exemption, and so forth) but large numbers of smaller children’s products and specialties whose makers had less of a political voice simply disappeared.”

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