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Cheese world in tizzy over FDA interpretation on rule; ramifications feared

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Aging cheese on wood boards is a common practice among artisan cheesemakers at home and overseas. Now, some in the industry are worried regulators may crack down on the practice.

In recent communication to the New York regulators, the Food and Drug Administration noted that wood shelves and boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized, and as such, do not conform to a particular regulation regarding plant equipment and utensils.

The federal agency also noted that "proper cleaning and sanitation of equipment and facilities are absolutely necessary to ensure that pathogens do not find niches to reside and proliferate."

In a statement issued Tuesday, the FDA seemed to backtrack on the comments, however. It noted that it hasn't taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wood shelves. And while it said it has expressed concern about whether wood can be adequately cleaned, it added that it is "always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese."

The FDA said it will engage with the artisanal cheesemaking community to determine whether certain types of cheese can be safely made by aging them on wooden shelves.

The note to New York regulators had sparked concern in the cheese world because much of the cheese that's imported in the U.S. is aged on wood. Robert Ralyea, a senior extension associate at Cornell University's Department of Food Science, said aging cheese on wood is even a part of the standard of identity for some cheeses, such as Comte cheese.

Ralyea made the inquiry on wood boards on behalf of a New York cheesemaker to state regulators, who then requested clarity from the FDA on the matter. The FDA's communication was posted late last week, sparking the concerns in the cheese world.

"A sense of disbelief and distress is rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community," wrote the blog Cheese Underground.

Meanwhile, the American Cheese Society, a trade association based in Denver, posted an alert to its members. Nora Weiser, executive director for the society, said the aging of cheese on wood boards has never been an issue in the past. She said state inspectors have generally just worked with cheesemakers to ensure the wood is being properly cleaned.

"We can't guess what they'll do. Their goal is safety, and that's our goal as well," Weiser said. But she added that the American Cheese Society wanted to "preserve this as a method of aging cheese."

Nancy Richards, owner of Finger Lake Farmstead Cheese in upstate New York, said she was shut down seven months ago after listeria was found in her plant, which uses wood to age cheese. She wasn't certain if that was the reason, but said she thinks the FDA has never liked wood for aging cheese.

"It makes them nervous," she said. "My personal humble opinion is that boards that are well kept can be adequately cleaned. But I'm not the regulator."

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Follow Candice Choi at www.twitter.com/candicechoi

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