• A blog post went viral over the weekend within the cheese-loving industry, alleging that a new rule from the FDA was banning the use of wooden boards to age cheese. 
  • But the FDA didn’t actually release a new rule; it was a communication between a state and federal departments regarding existing guidelines about the use of wooden boards and their potential for harboring possibly harmful bacteria. 
  • So what’s the deal? In a formal statement, the FDA said it has previously expressed concern over whether wood constitutes an “adequately cleanable” surface.
  • The FDA still has concerns about using wooden boards, and cheesemakers want to continue to use them to age their products.

The artisan cheese industry has been raising a stink about an apparent government rule that some say restricts the use of wooden boards in the cheese-aging process.

Cheesemakers argue that certain types of bacteria create a film on wooden boards that is beneficial and safe to achieve specific flavors.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Photo credit: Shutterstock

“Without the boards, it will be the end of Limburger cheese made in the United States,” Myron Olson, the owner of the Wisconsin-based Chalet Cheese Cooperative and the only producer of American Limburger cheese, told the Wisconsin State Journal.

After citing several New York cheesemakers several months ago for improper sanitation after their boards were found to be harboring potentially harmful bacteria, a New York state agency that allows the practice of aging cheese on wooden boards contacted the Food and Drug Administration for clarification about its guidelines.

Monica Metz, branch chief of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s Dairy and Egg Branch, told the state agency official that aging cheese on wooden boards seems to go against the FDA’s already established Current Good Manufacturing Practice because they “cannot be adequately cleaned.” Metz’ statement, while made back in January, was recently called up by the blog Cheese Underground, triggering the new outcry.

“Microbial pathogens can be controlled if food facilities engage in good manufacturing practice,” Metz said. “Proper cleaning and sanitation of equipment and facilities are absolutely necessary to ensure that pathogens do not find niches to reside and proliferate. … 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.”

Metz ended her communication with the state official by saying that “the sanitation of a cheese processing plant’s equipment and environment play[s] an important role in preventing pathogen contamination” and should be of the utmost importance to cheesemakers.

Rob Ralyea at Cornell University’s food science department told Cheese Underground that while the FDA previously deferred to state laws when it came to inspections, this “obviously changed under the [Food Safety and Modernization Act.]”

Wisconsin cheesemaker Chris Roelli, who ages 85 percent of his cheeses on wooden boards, told the Wisconsin State Journal the news would be “a potential game-changer for the face of artisan cheeses in the United States.”

“I obviously have a lot riding on this because my niche is on cellar-curing cheeses, so I’m worried about it,” he added.

Following the confusion, the FDA issued a statement saying no new policy had been instituted (emphasis added):

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.

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.

As for the science involved, the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Center for Dairy Research published a study last year on the topic.

Wooden boards are cleaned in a variety of ways, usually soaked in cold water and brushed off, with the goal of removing any pathogens while allowing “good” bacteria to remain. Other stronger cleaning methods, which often involve high heat, can be used as well. Even so, some potentially harmful bacteria has been found to remain in certain cases.

But the study also found that in some respects, wooden boards are more sanitary than plastic ones when it comes to lifting bacteria from the surface. Bacteria that had formed a biofilm on a wooden board was less likely to be removed compared to that on a plastic board

“The pathogen is more easily removed from the upper non-porous surface of the plastic board than from the interior of the deep crevices and pores in the wood,” the review stated.

Overall, the university concluded, “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.”

The American Cheese Society also says that wood can be safely used for aging cheese, while cautioning that the surface must be in good condition and properly maintained with various types of sanitary techniques.

“Today’s cheesemaker — large and small, domestic and international — continue to use this material for production due to its inherent safety, unique contribution to the aging and flavor-development process, and track record of safety as part of overall plant hygiene and good manufacturing practices,” the American Cheese Society said in a statement. “No foodborne illness outbreak has been found to be caused by the use of wood as an aging surface.”

The society said it would strongly encourage the FDA to “revise its interpretation” of the code cited by Metz “to 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.”

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