Knock on Wood

Last week closed a US Open-worthy volley between the U.S. FDA and the international cheesemaking/cheeseloving community on the future of cheese in America. The world’s most famous cheeses, including Parmigiano Reggiano, Swiss Gruyere, English clothbound cheddar and more than 75% of the specialty cheeses produced in America were suddenly in peril. The reason? All of these cheeses are aged on wood boards. They have been sold and consumed in the States for decades, and the rapidly growing American artisan cheese industry has adopted many traditional practices while conforming to strict risk management standards per the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Why, suddenly, was this well documented and international practice called into question? In January 2014 a New York State dairy was inspected and cited for a violation of Good Manufacturing Practices regulation. The violation? The use of wood boards for cheese aging. So atypical was this citation that New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets wrote to Branch Chief Monica Metz of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition requesting clarification on the violation. Her response confirmed that, while GMP specified only that plant equipment be “adequately cleanable” (and never mentioned the use of wood as an (un)acceptable material) she had determined that wood boards could not be adequately cleaned or sanitized. The conclusion: cheese producers using wood boards were at risk of being shuttered, or at least barred from selling their cheese in the U.S.

The problem here was best summarized by Vermont Congressman Peter Welch, who took to twitter with the following: “The FDA’s right hand doesn’t know what its left hand is doing. Which FDA should cheese makers listen to?”

For years, cheeses imported to, and produced in, the Unites States have been safely aged on wood. The NY State cheesemaker in question did have contaminated wood boards in their plant. They also had contaminated floors, drains and racks. The entire plant was contaminated with pathogens. The obvious conclusion here isn’t that wood boards infect cheese and make people sick; it’s that a producer who isn’t managing their facility to exacting standards, testing the milk, the equipment and the environment and intervening in any quality control issues with rapidity and exactitude, is a producer who should be shut down. The wood boards are a red herring.

One would think that a high ranking official of the government agency overseeing the safety of food in the United States would be clear on the history of production standards, and the associated safety record (a sum total of zero documented cases of listeria outbreaks from cheese aged on wood boards). The potential implications of Ms. Metz’s edict went far beyond a few fancy pieces of cheese sold at expensive boutiques in New York City. The United States represents one of the largest export markets for cheese in the world. For the Italians, this had the potential to mean the loss of 25M pounds of Parmigano Reggiano and Grana Padano sales alone. Most catastrophically, it meant 3 out of every 4 specialty cheese makers in America-- businesses driving rural economies across the country and providing tens of thousands of jobs—were, inexplicably, faced with a potential rule change that would shut down their companies. 

But wait! These were only potential implications, as the FDA quickly made clear on June 11. They issued a statement carefully noting that Ms. Metz’s “communication was not intended as an official policy statement” and 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.”

For one bureaucrat to make an unsubstantiated leap about the causes of food contamination is the real problem here, as is the assumption that any maker with an operation that looks like a violator must be similarly failing to safely manage their production line. When pressed by Congressman Peter Welch’s office, Ms. Metz’s answer was “I was told they [wood boards] were not allowed and never have been.” If the person in charge of safety regulation for the entire cheese industry for the United States of America is making internationally-reaching proclamations because “someone told her” then it’s not just the safety of our supply chain we need be worried about.