The Wood-Shelving, Aged Cheese Incident

Beaufort. Comté. Reblochon. Abondance. Vacherin Mont d’Or. Salers. Dry Monterrey Jack. Parmigiano Reggiano. Do you know what these names have in common? For those who are not hip to the niche, artisan cheese market, each of them is a type of cheese which is made by, among other things, being aged on a wood-board.  Now, can you imagine salads, sandwiches, grits, crackers, pasta, or wine without these tasty concoctions? While those names are a mouthful in more ways than pronunciation alone, personally, the thought of a world without easy access to Parmigiano Reggiano would not be a place of which I would want to be a part.  However, per a January communication from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that contemplation could become a reality. Based on a response to a question from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the FDA appeared to sound the death knell for wood-board aged cheese crafted in or imported into the United States.  Specifically, the FDA stated that “[t]he 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.”  This position was based upon an interpretation of 21 C.F.R. 110.40(a), a regulation about food equipment and utensils which states:

(a) All plant equipment and utensils shall be so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable, and . . . shall preclude the adulteration of food with . . . any other contaminants. . . . Food-contact surfaces shall be maintained to protect food from being contaminated by any source. . . .

Like wheels of cheese aging for months on wood racks, the news of the FDA’s take on wood-board aging spread slowly to the cheese community, but like the pungent aroma of Beaufort, once it did, artisan cheese craftsmen found themselves with worse heartburn than at a habanero cheddar tasting.  However, in an effort to stave off the effects of enforcement by the FDA, the craftsmen’s advocate, the American Cheese Society, released a position statement wherein it stated that wood-board aged cheese meets food safety standards and that the FDA should give proper notification, hold a proper comment period, review scientific data, and include consideration of industry stakeholders before modifying its interpretation or implementation of its regulations. In a quick response, the FDA clarified its interpretation of its official policy to New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. This “clarification” declared the FDA did not intend the communication to be “an official policy statement,” but instead as “background information on the use of wooden shelving for aging cheeses and as an analysis of related scientific publications.”  However, the FDA did not back away completely from the idea of ending the use of wood shelving.  Instead, it noted it has pursued enforcement actions when it found the presence of Listeria monocytogenes at facilities that used wood shelving.  The FDA claims that since 2010, more than 20 percent of inspections of artisanal cheesemakers have revealed the presence of Listeria monocytogenes. Currently, no FDA enforcement actions directly allege that wood shelving caused contamination, yet it appears the FDA has left that option open. Should the FDA be able to make a case that wood shelving is the direct cause of a harmful contamination, it can still take administrative or judicial action to enforce its regulations.  Administrative actions include product recalls, withdrawals of product approvals, or license revocations. Judicial actions include seizures of violative products, injunctions, criminal prosecutions, and certain civil money penalties.  It is unclear how the FDA would go about enforcement against the artisanal cheese community; however, generally, the FDA looks to administrative remedies first. Therefore, although the FDA has ended the initial uprising over this issue, artisan cheesemakers will need to remain aware of the FDA’s next moves.  Hopefully, the FDA will give the cheesemakers an opportunity to present their generations-old argument that wood shelving, as a porous surface, absorbs excess humidity and prevents unwanted mold as well as adds to the flavor while still remaining healthy. The future of parmesan depends on it.