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Jun 8, 2014 07:30 PM

US FDA Rules No Wooden Boards in Cheese Aging

"...the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week announced it will not permit American cheesemakers to age cheese on wooden boards." This may also affect the import of cheeses from elsewhere that are aged on wood.

This piece from last year describes what aging on wood contributes to cheese character.

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  1. So sad and annoying. As if there was a huge outbreak of food poisoning caused by this. So stupid and senseless.

    1. As a cheese consumer, not producer, I don't have a problem with the regulation. It may be that the great majority of cheesemakers have a completely safe operation, but consider the following excerpt from an FDA enforcement action:

      "On June 19, 2012, the FDA informed your firm of the environmental sampling results.  Your firm indicated that you would stop production to clean and sanitize your facility.  During the July 2012 inspection of your facility, an FDA investigator observed the following significant violations of the Current Good Manufacturing Practice regulation for foods [21 CFR Part 110]:

      1. You failed to clean food-contact surfaces as frequently as necessary to protect against contamination of food as required by 21 CFR 110.35(d).  You failed to clean and sanitize all of the wooden boards used to hold your Gouda-style cheese in the large aging cave even after FDA informed you of positive L. monocytogenes results found on one of these boards.

      2. You failed to clean non-food contact surfaces of your facility as frequently as necessary to protect against contamination of food as required by 21 CFR 110.35(d)(3).  You failed to clean any of the metal racks in the large aging cave used to hold the wooden boards (used to hold cheese) even after FDA informed you of positive L. monocytogenes results found on one of these racks."

      Cheesemakers should place the blame where it belongs — on those within their own ranks who have unsanitary operations. If the FDA feels a stricter rule is necessary to keep Listeria out of the food supply, that's their business and their responsibility.

      23 Replies
      1. re: GH1618

        I think the answer is to enforce the existing rules, not to ban a whole method of cheese aging that has not been shown to be harmful when done properly. If you want to draw your argument to its logical conclusion, if some cheese-making operations are unsanitary, then they should ban all cheese!

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          It isn't clear that it has been banned. I couldn't find the original document on which this is based, so I don't know what the FDA intends to do other than enforce existing regulations. The existing regulations do not prohibit wood, but they do require sanitary facilities for the production of food. It seems that so far the FDA has merely made an interpretation that wood in contact with food is not sanitary, but I want to see the FDA document.

          It is important to note that this did not just come out of the blue. A few years ago there was a report prepared by the FDA and the comparable Canadian authority on the problem of Listeria in food. The FDA has been inspecting cheesemaking operations for awhile and has found Listeria in several, and found cases of illness caused by Listeria. They have brought enforcement actions against a few cheesemakers with unsanitary conditions, and I have posted an excerpt from one of these. These enforcement actions are entirely legitimate. It is what the FDA does to protect our food supply.

          I would like to see the following rather than jump to conclusions about what the FDA is doing or planning to do.

          1. Original FDA documents pertaining to the regulation or prohibition of the use of wood in cheesemaking, including proposed regulations.

          2. Original FDA documents showing enforcement actions against any cheesemaker merely for using wood, without having found Listeria or some other pathogen at the plant.

          Can anyone provide a link to these?

          1. re: GH1618

            The blog Melanie linked quoted the FDA as stating that wooden shelves are inherently unsanitary -- if a direct quote from an FDA ruling is not sufficient for you, you can search for the original documents yourself!

            The blog states:

            Recently, the FDA inspected several New York state cheesemakers and cited them for using wooden surfaces to age their cheeses. The New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets' Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services, which (like most every state in the U.S., including Wisconsin), has allowed this practice, reached out to FDA for clarification on the issue. A response was provided by Monica Metz, Branch Chief of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition's (CFSAN) Dairy and Egg Branch.

            In the response, Metz stated that the use of wood for cheese ripening or aging is considered an unsanitary practice by FDA, and a violation of FDA's current Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations. Here's an excerpt:

            "Microbial pathogens can be controlled if food facilities engage in good manufacturing practice. Proper cleaning and sanitation of equipment and facilities are absolutely necessary to ensure that pathogens do not find niches to reside and proliferate. Adequate cleaning and sanitation procedures are particularly important in facilities where persistent strains of pathogenic microorganisms like Listeria monocytogenes could be found. The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP requirements, which require that "all plant equipment and utensils shall be so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable, and shall be properly maintained." 21 CFR 110.40(a). Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized. The porous structure of wood enables it to absorb and retain bacteria, therefore bacteria generally colonize not only the surface but also the inside layers of wood. The shelves or boards used for aging make direct contact with finished products; hence they could be a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms in the finished products."

            So they are enforcing existing rules about sanitation, but clarifying that wooden shelves do not meet the existing sanitation requirements.

            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              I did search and I can't find it. I am not in the habit of popping off on a subject without doing my homework, and I always want to see the original documents. I'll wait for some actual FDA document.

              1. re: GH1618

                "I am not in the habit of popping off on a subject without doing my homework" -- well apparently you are, since your homework is incomplete.

        2. re: GH1618

          O.K., I considered it. So what? That is one example of one bad producer. I think the issue is how many people have gotten ill from aging cheese on wooden boards? I don't know the answer to that but I've never heard of it being an issue. This is the same group that bans raw milk cheeses under 60 (?) days old, right?

          Maybe it isn't a reach on the part of the FDA but, again, I've never heard of this being an issue.

          1. re: HoosierFoodie

            The FDA requires pasteurization of all milk products sold in interstate commerce, except for aged cheeses, as they should. I believe 60 days is correct.

            It isn't necessary for people to become ill for the FDA to act. If Listeria, a known pathogen, is found in a plant, the plant operators will be required to clean it up and to demonstrate that their operation meets the regulations. Listeria has, in fact, been found in plants producing aged cheeses, and it is the burden of those cheesemakers to deal with it and prove to the FDA that their process is sanitary. That is the way it should work.

            1. re: GH1618

              'The FDA requires pasteurization of all milk products sold in interstate commerce, except for aged cheeses, as they should.'

              AS THEY SHOULD, l think very not. To date there has been no case of Listeria due to raw milk, always improperly pasteurized milk. Listeria is able to grow in an environment where the stronger bacteria in raw milk is not there to prevent it from happening.
              Europe has been making raw milk cheese for centuries with very little bad happening. l personally only eat raw milk cheeses and have been for many decades. You are telling me it is fine for the government to prevent me from having it, really ?
              BTW, the USA makes many wonderful raw milk cheeses that are sold interstate, example Jasper Hills Winnimere, that are aged less than your 60 day statement.

              1. re: GH1618

                I like you, GH, I really do -- but you're really being misled here.

                There are millions and millions of people who eat raw-milk cheeses and/or cheeses aged on wood boards around the world every single day.

                It simply isn't automatically contaminated.

                Enforce the rules, but don't outlaw centuries of tradition that HASN'T harmed millions of people because of a few cases of repeat offenders who should have been shut down.

                1. re: sunshine842

                  Or just put a warning on it. That way people who are uncomfortable don't need to eat it, and the rest of us can just freely gorge ourselves on this deliciousness.

                  1. re: EatFoodGetMoney

                    Exactly -- I'm totally cool with that (even if I think it's silly)

                    1. re: sunshine842

                      Definitely silly, and unnecessary in both our opinions, but if it's that or nothing, I suppose we could take it haha.

                  2. re: sunshine842

                    Thanks, but ...

                    There are always a few people in internet forums who seem to think that if someone takes an opposing position it must be because they are uninformed, or misinformed, or paid to take another position.  There are seven billion people in the world, each with an individual point of view.  Some of those people will be as well-informed as anyone can be, yet reach differing conclusions simply because they have differing values and so weigh the various factors differently.

                    I happen to favor strict regulation of food safety, so believe that the risk of certain pathogens in food, even though small, should be minimized.  I know something about safety engineering, and know that every good safety protocol has redundancy.  I place no value at all on a commercial cheesemaker's right to use a traditional process or piece of equipment when there is any conflict at all with food safety regulations.  I believe that it is entirely appropriate for any producer of food sold in interstate commerce to meet FDA standards of sanitation.  That position isn't a matter of what information I am using, but what my values are.

                    I also believe that if cheesemakers stop whinging and concentrate on the problem of how best to control Listeria and certain other pathogens to the FDA's satisfaction that they will come up with a satisfactory solution. 

                    1. re: GH1618

                      What do you think about restaurants serving rare burgers, rare steaks, sushi, raw eggs, raw meats etc?

                      Do you consider the costs of these regulations? Monetary, and the fact that people are robbed of their choice to eat certain things.

                      Why would you oppose simply labeling these products with a sticker?

                      There are lots of ways to make the world "safer," but they all have costs, and there are plenty of times where the costs (I know, subjective) severely outweigh the benefits (also subjective).

                      1. re: EatFoodGetMoney

                        If I were selling hamburgers, I wouldn't cook them rare, regardless of my source of meat.

                        I happen to like sushi. Good sushi bars are the cleanest of restaurants, and the processes for ensuring a safe product well understood.

                        1. re: GH1618

                          Maybe logical in the US where I think fish must be frozen to kill the parasites if it is to be used for raw preparations. But not all countries insist on this and you need to be very careful - I tend to only eat it in Japan and Sydney.

                          If I were selling hamburgers I would be cautious as well in a litigious country like the US. But if making my own I would eat them rare.

                      2. re: GH1618

                        GH1618 - I can't help but think your first two paragraphs are contradictory. In the first you argue its perfectly reasonable to have different opinions. But in the second you say we must all eat food cheese that meets your standards of safety. So those that are happy to accept a greater risk are not allowed to.

                        Much traditional food has risk and its risk thats been mitigated against for years and years so that the processes are relatively safe and very very low risk. Educate consumers and let them understand the risks but lets not ban these perfectly safe foods or production techniques.

                        Conversely, much mass produced food is far more risky. The mass industrialisation of food has introduced new techniques and additives which are really untried and not tested over time. BSE is a good example of this. Let's ensure this sector is fully regulated, assessed, monitored and controlled.

                        Mass produced cheese from a factory can be produced in a safe, highly regulated and monitored environment, and can be labelled as such.

                        Artisan cheese production needs to be regulated and monitored. But the standards applied need to be sensible and appropriate. Bad/dangerous practice should be addressed and eliminated. The products should be labelled appropriately and consumers can make their choice.

                        But lets not apply a uniform standard to all food production. All artisan techniques are not appropriate for factories and all factory techniques are not appropriate for artisans.

                        Let there be choice and let the consumer make informed decisions - we don't need a nanny state.

                        1. re: PhilD

                          No, you may eat whatever you like. However you may not sell any food you like in interstate commerce, only that which meets FDA standards.

                          1. re: GH1618

                            OK, I understand that, but what has that got to do with the price of fish?

                            1. re: GH1618

                              So you want your opinions enforced by law and ours don't count at all.

                          2. re: GH1618

                            But there's a difference between food safety and removing all of the things that give food actual flavor.

                            There is no way to make 100% of food 100% safe for 100% of the people, no matter how uniform and sterile and unattractive and untasty you make things.

                            So let others have their right to have an opinion, too. Not everyone believes in your degree of near-sterility.

                            Want a warning label? Okay. But don't outlaw something that millions of people eat every single day just because *you* are squicked out.

                            As mentioned elsewhere, I don't buy for a New York second that this is anything other than political manipulation of regulations to put artisanal cheesemakers out of business.

                            1. re: GH1618

                              Do you work for the FDA or big corporate dairy?

                              1. re: HoosierFoodie

                                I beg your pardon. Besides I have already answered a similar question. I suggest you read the entire thread.

                    2. WOW, what next. l am so thankful my government is protecting me.
                      Yet another reason to spend so much time in France and l do.

                      1. There goes 100% of the limburger cheese. It can only be produced on boards with the good bugs transferred from cheese to cheese.

                        So much for visiting Monroe on my annual Wisconsin cheese buying trek.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                          There is nothing here which supports your assertion that anything must be transferred through unsanitized boards:


                          1. re: GH1618

                            Under the heading of Washing in your link, it talks about abut picking up the natural yeasts through sitting and handling. It was explained to me at the creamery that the yeasts were transferred naturally from the boards.

                            1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                              It also says that "everything must be clean and sanitized." That's all the FDA requires — clean and sanitary facilities for the production of food. Somehow sourdough bread makers manage to use wild yeast without tolerating Listeria in their plants. Cheesemakers need to do the same.

                              1. re: GH1618

                                The faulty part of this argument is the assertion that using wooden boards means "tolerating listeria" -- there's no evidence to show that wooden boards contribute to listeria development. And some evidence, both scientific and centuries of real world experience, to show that in fact it isn't dangerous.

                        2. Here's a link to a document which is purported to be a copy of the original letter, but there is nothing to identify it as such:


                          4 Replies
                          1. re: GH1618

                            See, the homework wasn't that hard. If this isn't good enough, maybe you should talk to Ms. Metz personally. I'm sure she'll be happy to provide you with adequate documentation. Because clearly the cheesemakers are lying scum who are misrepresenting her.

                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                              That document wasn't online when I looked earlier. It was only about an hour old when I found it. And you are being snotty, I think. That isn't helpful.

                              1. re: GH1618

                                Yup, you got me, I was being snotty. Because you used the word "purported" which implies that you find the source to be untrustworthy without any reasonable basic for inferring that.

                            2. re: GH1618

                              FWIW, the document properties show the author as "Nsofor, Obianuju" and a quick google shows that there is a Obianuju Nsofor, Ph.D. in the Division of Plant and Dairy Food Safety, CFSAN, FDA. Of course, I realize that document properties are easily faked, but I don't see why anyone would do that.

                              Having interacted regularly with FDA (other Centers though), this document mystifies me. It doesn't look like an official document. Maybe it's an abstract from Nsofor for a conference presentation? FDA does use conference presentations to convey to the industry their interpretation of regulations and guidances, and their expectations that derive therefrom.