Wisconsin cheese makers appear to have backed down some regulators in Washington. It’s been an interesting week for John Umhoefer, Executive Director with the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. “At the beginning of the week we were pretty sure FDA wanted to stop the use of wood for curing cheese, and now . . . we find that they have reversed themselves, and clarified that was never their intent,” Umhoefer said Thursday.
The Food and Drug Administration had issued a statement that the use of wooden aging boards is unsanitary, a stance which Umhoefer said strikes at the heart of the artisan cheese industry. “For many types of cheese, especially when you want to have a nice rinded cheese, wood is the best surface to rest that cheese on for the many months or years that you have the cheese in play. It wicks away moisture from the cheese and delivers it back when needed. It really breathes along with the cheese.”
After an outcry from cheese making states like Wisconsin and Vermont, FDA backtracked on its initial statement that the wood boards cannot be adequately sterilized.
“The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) requirement in effect that addresses this issue. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.
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. Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings. 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.”
“I am pleased to see the FDA responding quickly to this important matter,” said Ben Brancel, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “DATCP will continue to work with the FDA as it engages the cheese making community on this issue.”
But a spokesman for a Wisconsin member of Congress was more cautious. “The FDA has not given Members of Congress any assurance that the practice of wood-aging will be protected,” said Alex Nguyen, Communications Director for Representative Mark Pocan. The Madison Democrat will offer an amendment to prohibit FDA from moving to prohibit the use of wood aging boards for cheese.
Umhoefer said there is no history of the wood being associated with illness. “There’s been no – zero – outbreaks attributed to wood boards as far as a consumer health issue, ever” he said. “We were quite surprised when this came up as an issue. It seemed to come out of the blue and didn’t have a role in in any food safety issues. And the regulators will confirm that.”