FDA Bans Wood from Cheese-Making; Industry Decries 'Devastating Development'

June 10, 2014 - 3:19 PM

The Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Friday that it will not allow cheese makers use wooden boards to age their cheese - a ruling that would effectively wipe out artisanal cheeses.

The FDA's ruling came to light after several cheese makers in New York were cited - despite state laws that allow the use of wood boards.

"Reports showed that the porous structure of wood made it susceptible to the colonization of bacteria on the surface and inside the wood," Monica Metz, the branch chief for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition's Dairy and Egg Branch, wrote in her analysis to the New York Department of Agriculture & Markets' Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services.

There's only one problem: Metz's analysis didn't include the entire findings of the research, AP reports.  Research conducted by The University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Dairy Research shows "that while some wood can hide some bad bacteria, it can be eliminated as long as a thorough cleaning procedure is followed."

This is a "potentially devastating development" for cheese makers, said Chris Roelli, a Wisconsin cheese maker. It would put America "at a global disadvantage because the flavor produced by aging on wood cannot be duplicated. This is a major game changer for the dairy industry in Wisconsin, and many other states.

"We do not have a viable option available to us that will do the same things that the wood does to the cheese," Roelli said in an interview with CNSNews.com. "The wood provides a way of controlling moisture, wood provides flavor, and the wood provides a stable environment for the beneficial microbes to grow that allow the cheese rind to develop.

"Wood has been used in cheese making in Europe for thousands of years, from day one of cheese," Roelli said, calling it the "pillar" of his "niche business. If [the ban] goes through, it would severely hamper what we are doing at this point. 85% of the product I manufacture is made to be aged on wood. We don't have a plan B. We would have to start from square one again and reinvent our business."

Wood boards have been used to make cheese for over a thousand years - since the very beginning of cheese making.

New York and Wisconsin's State Agricultural boards allow their cheese makers to use wood.

So how does the FDA have the authority to do this? The FDA is citing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA) signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011. FMSA shifts focus "from responding to contamination to preventing it," the Cheese Underground reports. "While most cheese makers have, perhaps, begrudgingly accepted ... increased federal regulations and inspections, no one expected this giant regulation behemoth to virtually put a stop to innovation in the American artisanal cheese movement."

It appears that the FDA is concerned about the spread of Listeria, a harmful bacteria that is a concern in the dairy industry.  However, the latest research has concluded that the use of wood for aging cheese is safe, so long as proper cleaning procedures are followed. A study in France found no evidence of pathogens on the board surface or within the wood.

"Considering the beneficial effects of wood boards on cheese ripening and rind formation, the use of wood boards does not seem to present any danger of contamination by pathogenic bacteria as long as a thorough cleaning procedure is followed," a paper from the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research concluded.

The American Cheese Society (ACS) released a statement today saying that it “strongly encourages FDA to revise its interpretation …and continue to permit properly maintained, cleaned, and sanitized wood as an aging surface in cheesemaking as has been, and is currently, enforced by state and federal regulators and inspectors.”

ACS says, “Many of the finest and most renowned cheeses from around the world are at risk of disappearing from the U.S. market if regulatory and enforcement changes under FSMA eliminate traditional materials and methods.”

30 million pounds of cheese are aged on wood in Wisconsin alone per year, calculates John Umhoefer, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. "So we are very concerned as an industry. This ban would have a big impact," he told CNSNews.com.

The Association wants to take the ban to the State legislatures and "make sure the issue is revisited with science, as opposed to just a memo from FDA," Umhoefer said.

There have been numerous "studies on wooden boards and their safety, and we're perplexed by the FDA's decision," he added. "We need to gather that science and put it before the FDA."

Update: Reportedly, the FDA is now denying it instituted the ban, even though MRCTV has obtained a PDF of the ban announcement.