7 Reasons You Should Be Troubled by the FDA’s Cheese-Aging Regulations

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Complications for Comte? Photo: Shutterstock

It's been a weird few days for people who love good cheese, particularly wheels of American farmstead cheese aged on wooden boards: Last week, it seemed as if the FDA had moved to ban aging cheese on wood, a practice almost as old as coagulated dairy itself and the production aspect that turns Comté into, well, Comté. New York's Department of Agriculture got curious as to why the agency had all of a sudden cited several producers for doing something New York and practically every other state permit, so the FDA replied it was simply enforcing long-standing policy, not doing anything new: Wood, being porous, "cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized," which sounds bad, and besides, Listeria outbreaks have plagued the cheese industry as recently as March.

If you're more of a Kraft Singles person, carry on; this affects you none whatsoever. But to the rest: The American Cheese Society, which represents artisans and bigger producers alike, is looking to keep affinaging the way it wants to, and the FDA, while it released more detailed information about its position yesterday, is still unsure about the practice. It reiterated that its policy isn't anything new, but again pointed out the subject of food-safe surfaces, the agency has "expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings." Now, it says, it 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."

While the agency's position on aging cheese on wooden boards seems to be more clear, it's uncertain whether this will become an eventual focus of industrywide enforcement, or if, as one writer suggested, this particular dairy crisis originated with a letter written with regards to a specific case and everyone's just overreacting.

In any event, cheesemakers have now gotten 9000 percent more vocal on the subject, and many are now turning their attention to American farmstead cheeses and their foreign counterparts, which is kind of cool. If the rules were eventually enforced, here are seven reasons why it would be a huge deal.

1. The rule-tightening could apply to imported cheeses. Bid adieu to "the great majority" of foreign fromage, says Cornell's Rob Ralyea. Rob Kaufelt, owner of Murray's Cheese, tells Grub, "Comté, Beaufort, and others like that would effectively disappear."

2. Small businesses would suffer. Artisans can't compete with factories, and wood aging is their competitive advantage. It "allows them to survive as small players in an agribusiness world," writes cheese pro Gordon Edgar. Moreover, adds Anne Saxelby, owner of Saxelby Cheese, the financial burden of converting someplace like Jasper Hill Farm that "has tons and tons of Cabot cheddar aging on shelves" would be "brutal."

3. Any actual ban would probably be illegal. The citation the FDA uses to defend its attack on wood — Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, 110.40(a) — has nary a mention of wood at all, and though it argues what's going on isn't "a ban," legal experts caution the inadvisability of a move by the FDA that shows disregard for "notice-and-comment rule-making." At Forbes, Greg McNeal invokes an Oliver Wendell Holmes line: "Those regulated by an administrative agency are entitled to 'know the rules by which the game will be played.'"

4. There's not much science backing the FDA up. This fight revolves around its contention that wood grows bad bacteria like Listeria, but critics — who have centuries of tradition on their side — counter that good bacteria, like what live in yogurt, are the point of wood aging. They're ready with studies showing the process is neutral at worst, beneficial at best. Says Saxelby: "There's more listeriosis from pasteurized cheese and deli meat than from wood-aged cheese."

5. Cheese aged on anything else tastes weird, comparatively speaking. "The thing about wood," Saxelby explains, "is it breathes. If you put something on a plastic or metal shelf versus a wood shelf, the stuff that sits on the plastic or metal shelf isn't going to be able to breath and isn't going to ripen properly."

6. The move would favor Big Cheese, where wood-aging is impracticable. "I'm not given to speculation about these kinds of theories, mind you, but some are saying it's maybe because the large producers have been losing market share against what we call 'the good stuff' these days," Kaufelt says, before clarifying: "Though I suspect it's more bureaucratic."

7. Finally, cheesemakers aren't dairy's Appalachian moonshiners. "We use strict testing and sanitary procedures," Kaufelt says. "It's been that way since the beginning, since we first worked with [the Department of Agriculture]. They're strict, and have to be." However, safe food, adds Saxelby, doesn't come "at the stake of the tried-and-true techniques we've used forever."