The Saga of the Cheese Aging Boards

In early June, the FDA issued a letter banning the use of wooden cheese aging boards—something it had been threatening for some time. The letter came in response to a request for clarification from the New York Department of Agriculture as to whether wooden surfaces were acceptable for the aging of cheese. In response, Monica Metz, branch chief of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s Dairy and Egg Branch (and a former employee of Leprino, the nation’s largest producer of mozzarella cheese) wrote: “The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening
does not conform to [current good manufacturing practices], 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.’”

In response, on June 9, Gregory McNeal of Forbes Magazine posted a blistering critique entitled “FDA May Destroy American Artisan Cheese Industry,” in which he pointed out that the FDA’s edict was neither legal (since FDA has allowed wooden boards up to this point, so they must follow rule-changing procedures to disallow them) nor scientific (many studies have shown that wooden boards are more sanitary). He pointed out that such a rule change would likely destroy many small cheesemakers. The Internet uproar that followed must have ruffled some FDA feathers, because the next day, FDA backpedalled with assurances that wooden boards would still be allowed. And on June 30, The Wall Street Journal published a letter from none other than Michael Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, in which he insisted that FDA “never had a policy to ban the practice of aging cheese on wooden boards. The agency has never taken enforcement action against a cheesemaker for the use of wooden boards alone, nor do we intend to.”

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