Hands off the cheese

Bureaucratic overreach may take the cheese off your table.

Artisanal cheesemakers are alarmed because they may have to stop aging their cheese on wooden shelves due to the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA’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.

The issue might be laughable if it did not have the potential to hurt cheesemakers.

As U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., noted, cheese means economic growth and job-creation for this state. Statistics from the Department of Agriculture show New York state produced 754 million pounds of cheese in 2012.

Not all cheese is produced in new facilities stuffed with stainless-steel and high-tech electronics. Artisanal cheesemakers, especially, tend to make their cheese the way it has been safely produced for centuries: by aging it on wooden boards. For some varieties of cheese, the wooden boards are even required. Because wood can add flavor to the cheese during aging, it is needed to flavor some cheeses properly.

There are cheesemakers who use wooden boards scattered throughout our state, including Monica Foote, who operates Danascara in Fonda.

If the FDA really does want cheesemakers to stop using wood and switch to plastic or steel shelves, it would not be cheap. Cheesemakers have noted it would be expensive for them to switch to other surfaces. Thousands of dollars could be spent on something that may not even be necessary.

As Schumer noted, the available scientific studies do not support the idea the wooden aging process is unsafe.

For that matter, the European Union and Canada do not prohibit the use of wooden boards for aging cheese. That’s an important point because both are famous for having regulators that can be just as fierce – if not more so – than those in the United States.

Schumer and his fellow U.S. senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, are urging the FDA to issue better guidance for cheese aging.

To its credit, the FDA backtracked on its stance Tuesday, 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.

While that’s a start, the FDA should drop the policy shift.