This time they try to save us from some of the most delicious and healthy cheeses.
A few weeks ago, we reported on the continuing ramifications of the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which gave the FDA unprecedented power over farms and food producers. We told you how the agency’s FSMA rulemaking on “spent grain” threatened the livelihood of small breweries and farmers by interfering with millennia-old practices.
Having backed off, at least for now, on its spent grain rule, the FDA chose another target: artisanal cheese.
On June 7, the FDA announced it would no longer permit American cheese makers to age cheese on wooden boards or shelving. The decree came quietly, in response to a request for clarification from the New York Department of Agriculture: the FDA had cited several New York cheese producers for the use of wooden boards.
The response, issued by Monica Metz, head of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s Dairy and Egg Branch, stated that the use of wooden boards is unsanitary and violates the FDA’s Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations, because:
Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized. 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.
Interestingly, the FDA claimed that this wasn’t a new policy, but rather a mere “clarification” of already-established FSMA rules. One could certainly interpret this as an intentional bypassing of the public rulemaking process, as well as an exploratory flexing of the agency’s new FSMA muscles. According to Rob Ralyea of Cornell University, the FDA has previously referred cheese inspections to the states, but “this has all obviously changed under FSMA.”
Does the FDA have a legitimate concern when it comes to aging cheese on wooden boards? Is it true that they can’t be “adequately cleaned or sanitized?” Simply put, no. As thoroughly documented by the American Cheese Society, there are a number of effective ways that wooden boards can be safely cleaned.
Even if there was some increased risk, many consumers would still choose artisanal cheese. As detailed in Cheese Underground and echoed by the cheese trade groups, some of “the most awarded and well-respected” American artisanal cheeses are aged on wooden boards, since it brings a richer, more complex flavor that can’t be duplicated when aged on other materials. In fact, many artisan cheese recipes are specifically formulated to be aged on wooden boards. This rule could have irreparably harmed thousands of small artisans and businesses.
It would also have further restricted American citizens’ access to imported cheeses since, under FSMA, a producer importing cheese to the US is held to the same standards as American producers. (You may recall that last year, in a frenzy over raw milk and unpasteurized cheese, the FDA shut down the importation of most fine European cheeses. This followed other moves to stop the import of European cheeses over the years.)
The public backlash against the prohibition of wooden boards was swift and immediate. So much so, that on June 11—just four days after the initial story broke—the FDA backpedaled by denying it had said what it clearly had said on the wooden board controversy:
The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA requirement in effect that addresses this issue. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.
This is playing with semantics: while the FDA hasn’t taken enforcement action solely on the use of wooden shelves, they have chastised cheese makers for wooden boards in broader citations. The agency has used this tactic before—quietly slipping a significant policy change in a much longer warning letter—in an attempt to limit consumer free speech on the Internet.
Perhaps the FDA is testing the limits of its new FSMA powers. After all, this is the second time in 2014 that the FDA has indicated an alarming new twist in FSMA policy, only to backtrack and claim otherwise after intense public pushback.
Whatever the FDA’s intentions, we need to keep pushing back on new and unreasonable FSMA rules. It’s essential in the fight to protect small farmers and producers, as well as our access to wholesome, local, and non-industrialized foods.