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FDA Retracts Ban on Cheese Aged on Wooden Boards

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Cheese lovers, rejoice: The FDA is backtracking on a statement (warning: PDF) it made last week that suggested it would start banning cheese aged on wooden boards, a practice that has been around in the cheese making community for, basically, ever. According to Inside Scoop SF, the agency first responded to the backlash by claiming that its position on wood-aged cheese has been "on the books since the 1980s" and that it was merely enforcing a long-standing policy. However, the FDA released a statement yesterday (below), in which it writes, "We have not and are not prohibiting or banning the long-standing practice of using wood shelving in artisanal cheese." The agency chalks ups the initial statement banning aging cheese on wood as a "communication not intended as an official policy statement" but instead was supposed to be "clarification" on questions asked by New York State. So no need to stockpile wheels of Comté, it looks like cheese is safe for now. See yesterday's statement:

Clarification on Using Wood Shelving in Artisanal Cheesemaking

Recently, you may have heard some concerns suggesting the FDA has taken steps to end the long-standing practice in the cheesemaking industry of using wooden boards to age cheese. To be clear, we have not and are not prohibiting or banning the long-standing practice of using wood shelving in artisanal cheese. Nor does the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) require any such action. Reports to the contrary are not accurate.

The agency's regulations do not specifically address the use of shelving made of wood in cheesemaking, nor is there any FSMA requirement in effect that addresses this issue. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.

At issue is a January 2014 communication from the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets' Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services, which was sent in response to questions from New York State.

The FDA recognizes that this communication has prompted concerns in the artisanal cheesemaking community. The communication was not intended as an official policy statement, but was provided as background information on the use of wooden shelving for aging cheeses and as an analysis of related scientific publications. Further, we recognize that the language used in this communication may have appeared more definitive than it should have, in light of the agency's actual practices on this issue.

The FDA has taken enforcement action in some situations where we have found the presence of Listeria monocytogenes at facilities that used such shelving. Since 2010, FDA inspections have found Listeria monocytogenes in more than 20 percent of inspections of artisanal cheesemakers. However, the FDA does not have data that directly associates these instances of contamination with the use of wood shelving.

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 these concerns have been noted in its inspectional findings. However, the FDA will engage with the artisanal cheesemaking community, state officials and others to learn more about current practices and discuss the safety of aging certain types of cheeses on wooden shelving, as well as to invite stakeholders to share any data or evidence they have gathered related to safety and the use of wood surfaces. We welcome this open dialogue.

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