June 11, 2014

After FDA Apparently Backtracks From Altering Cheese-Making Process, Gillibrand Urges FDA to Issue Clear Guidelines Ensuring Artisan Cheese Makers Can Continue to Use Wooden Boards

FDA Backtracked from Prohibiting Age-Old Practice of Using Wood Boards to Ripen Cheese, Leaving New York Artisan Cheese Makers, Small Businesses in Limbo About Agency Regulations of Cheese-Aging Process

Washington, DC – After the U.S. Federal and Drug Administration (FDA) seemed to backtrack from banning the traditional practice of aging artisanal cheese on wooden boards, leaving New York artisan cheese makers and small businesses in limbo over whether or not the agency may still crack down on the practice, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today called on the FDA to issue clear guidelines to assure that artisan cheese makers can continue to use the decades-old practice without fear and outline definitive measures producers should take to protect public health. Senator also requested the FDA provide any scientific data that backs the agency’s original assertion that the practice is “unsanitary.”

“Our small businesses and artisan cheese makers in New York and around our nation rely on the centuries-old process of making cheese and worry that they may still be targeted,” said Senator Gillibrand. “The FDA must immediately clarify their rules to assure our producers that they would be able to continue to use wood to age their cheese, which is an integral part of their process.”

In a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, Senator Gillibrand wrote, “If the use of wood curing shelves is prohibited, it would have a substantial negative impact on many small, New York cheese producers as well as make many varieties of imported cheese unavailable to the American consumer… In light of the research into the time honored practice of curing cheese on wood boards, I ask that FDA issue guidance that would permit the continued, safe use of wood boards in cheese aging.”

The FDA cited several New York state cheese makers for using the boards during an inspection and recently issued guidelines to New York State noting that the use of wood for aging cheese is unsanitary and violates FDA regulations for food safety manufacturing. The FDA later seemed to backtrack, stating that the agency does not have a new policy banning the practice while expressing concern over whether or not wooden boards that contact food can be adequately cleaned.

Many American artisan cheeses are currently aged or ripened on wooden boards – an integral part of aging cheese to create texture and flavor. Award-winning cheeses produced in the U.S., including Cabot’s Clothbound cheddar and Parmigiano Reggiano, imported cheese such as Beaufort and Comte, and locally-produced cheese here in New York, such as the Muranda Cheese Company in the Finger Lakes region, would be harmed by this new rule.

Senator Gillibrand called on the FDA to make clear what proper steps cheese producers should take and provide data that shows substantive risk posed by this practice. Senator Gillibrand also pointed out that there is extensive research that shows use of wood in cheese manufacturing is not a risk to the consumer if the boards are properly sanitized. The use of wood boards in cheese curing may also develop good bacteria that inhibit dangerous pathogens such as Listeria. 

Full text of Senator Gillibrand’s letter is below:

 Dear Commissioner Hamburg,

The millennia old practice of aging cheese on wood boards is used by many New York artisanal cheese producers in the production of their award winning rind ripened cheeses and is an integral part of the creation of numerous cheeses including Beaufort, Comté, Reblochon, Abondance, Vacherin, Mont d’Or, Salers, Parmigiano Reggiano. Comments by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) Dairy and Egg Branch call into question the continued use of wood boards to support ripening cheese. While a more recent statement from FDA expresses the agency’s willingness to engage with the cheese-making community it does little to address the confusion or concern expressed by producers. If the use of wood aging shelves is prohibited, it would have a substantial negative impact on many small, New York cheese producers as well as make many varieties of imported cheese unavailable to the American consumer.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) provides the FDA with expanded authority to improve food safety including mandatory recall, preventive controls, a foreign food safety assurance system, and enhanced surveillance of domestic products. The defining principle of this legislation is that these actions should be based on risk. There is ample research that indicates that the use of wood in cheese manufacturing does not present an inherent risk to the consumer if the boards are properly sanitized. 

In light of the research into the time honored practice of curing cheese on wood boards, I ask that FDA issue guidance that would permit the continued, safe use of wood boards in cheese aging. If there is a verifiable, substantive risk posed by the practice of aging cheese on wood boards that can be mitigated through appropriate cleaning and treatment, I ask that FDA include these processes in their guidance. If the FDA concludes that wood boards cannot be cleaned and sanitized for the purposes of aging cheeses, I ask that they provide the scientific and safety data used in their determination.        

I commend the work of FDA as it implements the Food Safety and Modernization Act and encourage your continued commitment to risk-based food safety regulations.