Few things in this world are as beautiful as an artisan cheese, hand-crafted with love and tradition by professionals who know exactly what they’re doing. Unfortunately for cheese and the people who love it, cheesemakers have an unexpected mortal enemy: the FDA. The regulatory agency has tangled with the cheese community in the past (as, for example, when it banned the sale of soft raw-milk cheeses aged less than 60 days), but last week was the showcase of a formidable fromage dust-up.
Here’s the problem: the FDA is concerned about food safety. From the agency’s founding, in an era when food was regularly stuffed with additives like arsenic, and was often heavily contaminated with harmful bacteria, it’s been concerned about eliminating common threats to the food supply. The widespread pasteurization of milk, for example, kept milk stable and safe to drink even when it was handled, shipped, sold, and stored and suboptimal conditions. Other restrictions on food sales have arisen from concerns about human health risks — for example, the FDA believes that the environment in hard aged cheeses is too acidic for dangerous bacteria to thrive, and feels comfortable allowing the sale of both raw and pasteurized hard cheeses, but thinks soft cheeses might become breeding grounds for bacteria.
Last week, the FDA decided that permitting the sale of cheeses aged on wooden boards was dangerous, as there’s no effective way to sterilize the wood. Cheesemakers fought back, as that’s actually part of the point. The more cheese is aged, the better it tastes, and the wooden boards used to age a number of traditional cheeses contribute to their complex flavors in part because they’re covered in beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms. Forcing cheesemakers to use sterilizable racks would irreparably change their cheeses, and in some cases would deprive them of the right to use special certifications and labels because their cheeses would no longer fit a certification standard.
In fact, the concern about sterilization was preexisting. The FDA had already banned the sale of wood-aged cheeses, but never enforced it, to the relief of cheese lovers across the United States. Most European and a large percentage of U.S. cheeses are currently aged on wood. European producers wouldn’t have changed traditional cheese production practices to meet the guidelines, which would have meant saying goodbye to a host of exquisite dairy experiences. The FDA got antsy and considered reinforcing the rule after a New York cheesemaker ruined the scene for everyone by repeatedly maintaining unclean conditions, racking up inspection violations.
When the FDA’s position on the issue hit the news, the cheese community went ballistic. Producers and consumers alike panicked over the implications of a ban on wooden racks and shelving, and the FDA took heed. The agency hastily issued a retraction claiming that it had never planned to ban wooden shelving — and that it was “open to dialogue” on ways to make cheese aging safer. Given the extremely low risk of food-borne illness related to cheese consumption, it’s clear that cheese producers are already committed to protecting their consumers, and they’re invested in keeping production methods safe. However, they’re equally invested in protecting hallowed tradition — because cheese aged on something other than a board might still be cheese, but it just won’t taste the same.
Meanwhile, the FDA should worry more about shocking, gross, and unhealthy additives that are perfectly legal in our food right now. That’s where the real food risks lie — not in the artisan cheese I picked up at the farmers’ market last weekend.
Photo credit: Graeme Maclean.