Last Friday, the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an announcement that it would not allow cheese makers to use wooden boards to age their cheese - but the Agency is now backing away, stating that they have not issued "a new policy banning use of wooden shelves."
So, what happened?
Last Friday, Monica Metz, the branch chief for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition's Dairy and Egg Branch informed the New York Department of Agriculture & Market's Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services, that:
"The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP requirements, which require that "all plant equipment and utensils shall be so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable, and shall be properly maintained." 21 CFR 110.40(a). 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."
She issued this "clarification" because several New York cheese makers were cited by FDA for their use of wooden boards - a practice that dates back to the beginning of cheese making itself, and is necessary for several cheeses to gain their peculiar flavors.
Officials cited the Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA) signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011 for authority to take action - although New York and Wisconsin states' Boards of Agriculture allow the use of wooden boards.
After an outcry from the cheese industry, Lauren Sucher from the FDA issued a statement late yesterday stating that the FDA:
...does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese making, nor is there any FMSA 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.
"So let's consider this a clarification, of their earlier clarification, which improperly characterized their official policy. Either way it's good news," writes Forbes.
The letter the FDA just issued says its "expressed concern about whether wood" is sanitary but is "always open to evidence that wood can be safely used." So, does that mean the FDA is not actually aware of the scientific research that shows no evidence of pathogens on wood surfaces used to make cheese?
"The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP requirements."
So are the New York cheese makers, cited by the FDA, free to continue to use wood?