Cheese lovers breathe a sigh of relief

Cheese aging

News feeds across the U.S. began buzzing when word came out that the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was moving to ban the aging of cheese on wooden boards. Wood has been the medium of choice for cheese aging for centuries, as the wood both helps to absorb excess moisture and hosts beneficial bacteria that create the surface mold essential to the flavor of many cheeses from Camembert to Raclette.

Cheese lovers, as well as artisanal cheese makers, were incensed by this news and bombarded the FDA with protests, prompting the FDA to issue a clarification. They state that they do not intend to ban wooden boards outright, but rather the agency 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," according to the Forbes  article. If the FDA would move to ban aging on wood, it would affect not only domestic cheese products, but also imports from the EU and other countries.

Although banning wooden boards may sound like government bureaucracy at its worst, the FDA did not initiate any action against cheese makers. The statement regarding the use of wooden boards was made in response to a request for clarification from New York state regulators. According to the Washington Post article linked above, the brouhaha "dates to a 2012 FDA inspection of a small cheesemaker in upstate New York, during which was found the presence of listeria monocytogenes, a potentially harmful bacteria, on one of the boards used to age the company's Gouda-style cheese. After inspectors found evidence of listeria again in 2013, the FDA ordered the company to halt its sales until it developed a listeria-control program." Listeria can grow in the cold temperatures of a refrigerator, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimate that "approximately 1600 illnesses and 260 deaths due to listeriosis [caused by the listeria bacteria] occur annually in the United States."

This isn't the first time the FDA has rankled the artisan 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." An inspection of Mimolette found an unacceptable level of mites that live on the rinds of the cheese, and while the FDA did not issue an outright ban, Mimolette imports have all but stopped.

Cheese aficionados hope that the FDA can work with the cheese industry to promulgate rules that allow consumers to enjoy aged cheese without compromising the quality of the product.

Photo courtesy The Washington Post

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