The panic over what appeared to be a change in the federal rules that govern the craft of artisan cheesemaking seems to be dying down, but cheesemakers remain suspicious, even after the Food and Drug Administration said late Wednesday that it had erred.
At issue is whether wooden boards are safe to use when aging and storing cheese.
To those who do not know a cloth-wrapped cheddar from a Comté, it seems an arcane matter. But for fans of imported and domestic artisan cheese, the threat of losing wooden planks to age and store cheese was akin to taking oak barrels away from winemakers.
Cheesemakers have used wood for centuries, relying on the porous nature of planks to help control moisture, a process necessary to create cheese rinds. Wood also helps encourage unique microbes that give different cheeses flavor and character.
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A ruling from the FDA that circulated widely this week seemed to indicate that the agency had banned the use of wood planks. The agency was responding to problems with listeria monocytogenes, a type of bacteria that can cause fatal illnesses, that was found at a cheesemaking operation in upstate New York.
But by Tuesday, after the issue blew up on social media and members of Congress got involved, the FDA issued a clarification that said while it had concerns over whether wood was a safe and sanitary medium for cheesemaking, it was in fact not changing the rules.
Late Wednesday, the FDA issued a more detailed statement on the issue that read much like an apology and made it clear wood was still OK.
FDA officials said that they “have not and are not prohibiting or banning the longstanding practice of using wood shelving in artisanal cheese.”
Further, the agency said that the language in the January letter from the agency’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition to New York agricultural officials that started the wood-board flap “may have appeared more definitive than it should have, in light of the agency’s actual practices on this issue.”
Still, cheesemakers and federal lawmakers from cheese-producing states remain skittish.
“It appears the FDA’s right hand doesn’t know what its left hand is doing,” Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said in a statement Thursday. “Which FDA should cheesemakers listen to?”
He cited a March 27 letter to his office from an agency official that stated in clear language that wooden boards “are not permitted and never have been.”
He plans to continue his effort to protect the use of wood by attaching an amendment to an agriculture appropriations bill moving through Congress that would prohibit the FDA from spending any money to enforce a ban on the use of wooden shelves in cheesemaking.
He, several cheesemakers and other government officials plan to gather Monday at the Cabot Creamery store in Waterbury, Vt., to discuss the bill and continue the battle to defend the use of wood.
The gathering Monday is “to let the world know, including the FDA, that cheesemakers and our delegation are ready to defend our industry from the vagaries of unpredictable and inconsistent regulation by the federal government,” said Mateo Kehler, an owner of Jasper Hills Farm in Vermont, who is organizing the event. Cathy Donnelly, a microbiologist at the University of Vermont, will be on hand to answer questions about the health risks associated with ripening cheese on wooden boards.
Fans of artisan cheese remained skeptical of the FDA’s mea culpa, as well.
“While this leaves a lot of room for improvement, and guarantees about as much as a bar-napkin IOU signed in crayon, it’s certainly a step in the right direction,” wrote Steve Unwin and Lauren McDowell of the cheese review blog CheeseRank.
Almost 75 percent of cheesemakers in California, Idaho and Wisconsin use wood to help make cheese, according to the American Cheese Society, an organization that represents the nation’s farmstead and artisanal cheesemakers. In addition, many of the most popular cheeses imported to America from Europe are aged on wood.
“Other than ruling that milk from mammals would no longer (be) allowed for cheese production, it is hard to think of an issue that would unite more of the cheese world – big and small, foreign and domestic – to mobilize,” Gordon Edgar, a cheese monger at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco and one of the nation’s authorities on artisan cheese, wrote in an email.