FDA Not Banning Wood-Aged Cheese, For Now

After cheesemakers and cheese lovers expressed their objections to an FDA interpretation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that appeared to ban the use of wooden boards for aging cheese, the FDA clarified its position. Despite a January 2014 statement that “The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening” does not conform to the current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations, on June 10, 2014, the FDA said that it is “always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.” While the newest statement indicates that the FDA does not intend to specifically crack down on the use of wood in cheesemaking, cheesemakers remain concerned that the policy interpretation could hurt the cheese industry.

Background

Prior to enactment of the FSMA, the FDA generally limited its inspections of food facilities to post-contamination response. The FSMA seeks to prevent contamination of the food supply by giving the FDA greater authority to preemptively address food safety concerns. In 2012, the FDA sent a warning letter to Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese Company, an artisanal cheesemaker in upstate New York, regarding the presence of listeria on wooden boards used to age cheese. In 2013, the FDA recalled a batch of Finger Lakes’ cheese due to listeria presence on samples; Finger Lakes later agreed to a permanent injunction closing its production facility until it demonstrates that it has developed a control program to eliminate listeria.

In October 2013, New York’s Department of Agriculture and Markets Division of Milk Control contacted the FDA seeking clarification of Finger Lakes’ violation of aging cheese on wooden boards. The FDA responded, saying all equipment and utensils in food manufacturing facilities must be “of such material and workmanship” to be adequately cleanable as required by 21 C.F.R. sec. 110.40(a). Because wooden shelves or boards are not adequately cleanable, and wood’s porous structure enables it to absorb and retain bacteria, their use is not considered cGMP.

Response

After the FDA’s response was published, the American Cheese Society issued a Member Alert, and announced that its Regulatory & Academic Committee would be investigating the situation and determining the Society’s course of action. The Society then issued a position paper, explaining its understanding of how wood surfaces can be adequately cleaned and safely used in cheesemaking. According to the American Cheese Society, more than 33 percent of cheesemakers in the United States use wood to age their product, and almost half of imported cheese, including Parmigiano-Reggiano and other popular cheeses, are also aged on wood. As cheesemakers, cheese lovers, and individuals concerned about the government’s involvement in food safety questioned the FDA’s interpretation of the regulation, the FDA issued a clarification, stating that no FDA policy bans the use of wooden shelves in cheesemaking. Further, the FDA plans to “engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving.”

Speaking with the AP, an owner of Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese said that the use of wood for aging cheese makes the FDA “nervous.” She believes that wooden boards that are well-kept can also be adequately cleaned, but said, “I’m not the regulator.” No illnesses were reported from the consumption of Finger Lakes’ cheese.