Mandate may hurt cheese businesses

Local artisan cheesemaker Monica Foote, who operates Danascara in Fonda, is concerned a potential new mandate from the FDA could hurt her business.

At issue is whether cheese makers will be able to continue using wooden boards to age cheese. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s interpretation of a safety rule says wooden boards or shelves can’t be properly sanitized and thus don’t conform to food safety regulations.

Foote said the change would alter the flavor of her cheese, and the cost to change her wood aging room- she estimated it would be more than $10,000 – would be difficult to afford.

“My product would change and also there is the cost of replacing [the boards],” Foote said. “My cheese would not be the same when I’ve finally developed a market, and it will cost me money to use a different kind of shelving.”

However, New York’s U.S. senators are urging the FDA to issue better guidance for cheese aging, arguing that some New York cheesemakers will be hurt if they can’t use wooden boards to age their cheese.

Democratic senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand on Wednesday said artisanal cheesemakers in upstate New York are affected by the FDA’s interpretation of the safety rule.

During a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Schumer spoke about the concerns he and those in the business have over the potential change in the centuries-old practice.

“When the FDA said earlier this year in a letter to the New York State Department of Agriculture that it might start considering wooden boards to ‘be incapable of being adequately cleaned’ because some bacteria can grow on the boards as it’s aging, but the fact is cheesemakers have been cleaning their aging boards and keeping them safe for centuries,” Schumer said. “However, under this interpretation the FDA could potentially shut down the cheese producer for using the process they have always used to make their product.”

Foote said she started using the centuries-old method of making cheese from the sheep milk produced on her farm in 2012. Although she has a small operation, Foote is annually producing about 10,000 pounds of cheese for supermarket chains such as Whole Foods and Wegmans.

Foote, who has a Ph.D. in immunology, said she regularly tests her boards and puts them through a rigorous three-step cleaning process using dairy cleaner and sanitizers.

On Tuesday the FDA backtracked on its stance, noting it hasn’t taken any enforcement action on the wooden shelves and is open to evidence that cheese could be aged on wood safely. The agency later released a statement saying its recent communication on the issue was not intended as an official policy statement, but was provided as background information on the use of wooden shelving.

“The fact is the FDA has not made clear whether they find the use of wooden shelves safe for aging cheeses,” Schumer said Wednesday. “If the FDA doesn’t clarify these rules and clarify them quickly, we in the [U.S.] Senate will work on legislation to compel them to do so.”

Earl Spencer – the owner of Palatine Valley Dairy, which makes Palatine Cheese – said his cheese is already packaged by the time it reaches the wooden shelves at his business.

However, he still fears the FDA could make him change the shelving.

“I’m sure if this stupid rule were to be enacted and they come in here, they are going to say I need to replace those racks,” Spencer said. “My question is, why are they messing with something that has been done for literally hundreds of years?”

He estimated the cost to replace his shelves would be around $5,000.

“We don’t use that process because our cheese doesn’t age that way,” said Ismail Batmaz, executive manager/sales and finance at Euphrates Inc., regarding the potential mandate regarding wooden boards.

Batmaz said the company doesn’t have any immediate plans to begin making cheese that requires wooden shelving at this time.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.