A recent rule interpretation by the Food and Drug Administration that aging cheese on wooden surfaces does not conform to sanitation standards has Vermont cheese makers worrying and Rep. Peter Welch working to block funding for its enforcement.
The practice of aging cheese on wooden surfaces came into question when the FDA cited several New York cheese makers for using the method, according to the blog Cheese Underground. When the New York Department of Agriculture sought clarification on the citations, the FDA responded by saying that wood – long used by cheese makers across the country and around the globe – is a porous surface that can't be adequately cleaned, and therefore can't be used.
Rep. Peter Welch has moved to stop the rule in its tracks, introducing an amendment to the House Agriculture Appropriations Bill that would cut FDA funding for the enforcement of a no-wooden-surfaces policy.
Welch had less than kind words about the rule:
"This is the mother of all bad ideas," he said in a phone interview Wednesday. "We have been using cheese boards since we began making cheese. It literally goes back to Adam and Eve."
Biblical references aside, Welch said that he hopes the amendment "will handcuff the FDA by prohibiting the use of any funds for the enforcement of what is clearly a very stupid regulation."
The regulation would affect imported cheese, too – think Parmigiano Reggiano and Beaufort – which Welch says would touch off a trade war with Europe. And for cheese makers here at home, it would mean fantastically costly upgrades.
"Jasper Hill Cheese, it could cost them $20 million," Welch said.
A representative at Jasper Hill confirmed this amount on Wednesday afternoon.
Meanwhile, the Vermont Cheese Council has heard from its members around the state since the news broke, according to Executive Director Tom Bivins.
"About 60 percent of our  cheese makers age on wood," Bivins says. "They're certainly communicating to me that they're concerned and worried that somehow or another this is going to impact their business... And these are small businesses all throughout the state."
The FDA has clarified its position with the following statement:
The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, 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.
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 has noted these concerns in inspectional findings. FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.
The FDA will engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving.
Some have interpreted this as a sign that the FDA is standing down, but Welch says it's just muddying the water. After all, this isn't a new policy that's in question, but an interpretation of an existing rule.
"Now, it may be that the FDA rule that has been in place, I guess since 1986, they wisely ignored, but now are starting to enforce. And the bottom line here is that there should be some real clarity," Welch says.
Until now, it's not as if aging cheese on wood has been a cloth-wrapped free for all. Here in Vermont, cheese makers actually adhere to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards. That's according to Vermont Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Diane Bothfeld.
"After each aging of cheese on the wooden shelves, they need to be cleaned, and then they need to be sanitized in some manner," Bothfeld says.
The agency accepts heat treatment – essentially pasteurizing the boards in a kiln or in the oven to kill bacteria – or treatment with a sanitizing solution. As for the benefits of using wood, Bothfeld says it's all about the terroir.
"If your boards are from your farm, you cut the wood and you put the boards together, and all that type of thing, then it very much continues that terroir," she says. "What's in your cheese aging cave that makes your cheese unique?"
For now, cheese makers and officials are waiting to see what becomes of Peter Welch's effort to rein in what he calls "an agency run amok."
Update on June 11, 2014 at 9:51 p.m. The FDA has issued a constituent statement clarifying its position on this issue:
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.
Read the full statement on the FDA's website.
Corrected on June 12, 2014 at 9:09 a.m. to reflect that Jasper Hill's upgrades would cost $20 million total, not $20 million per vault, as was originally stated.