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Has The FDA Brought On A Cheese Apocalypse? Probably Not

The Food and Drug Administration official who recently suggested that the wooden boards used to age cheese for centuries may be unsafe probably did not expect to start a cheese storm. But she did.

In a letter to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, FDA dairy safety chief Monica Metz wrote:

"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."

Distress rippled through the U.S. cheese-making community, as cheesemakers took this to mean they'd have to do away with the boards they count on to hold moisture, allow the cheese to breathe and improve its flavor profile. For some, that might mean the end of their business altogether.

Many of the best American cheeses (and by American, we don't mean those plastic-wrapped singles) are aged on wooden boards. These include Cabot's Clothbound Cheddar and Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a gruyere-like raw-milk cheese. Plenty of European cheese artisans use them, too — to make delicious delicacies like Comte and Reblochon.

The FDA, for its part, is worried about the bad bacteria, like listeria, that can grow on improperly cleaned surfaces and cause illness and death.

"Wood is hard to clean –- that's why they don't allow wooden pallets for some things," former FDA food safety chief David Acheson tells The Salt. And wooden cutting boards? They are not allowed in commercial food service prep, although there are many methods home cooks swear by, including spraying with diluted vinegar or bleach.

As for the cheese aging boards, "There's no question there's a risk," Acheson says, but the question is, how much. "I'm not aware of any evidence that the wooden boards on which cheese is aged led to listeria outbreaks," he says.

Although it's not the first time FDA has picked a battle over bugs — mimolette, anyone? — this time, "it really put a rocket under the cheese industry," he says.

"The very pillar that we built our niche business on is the ability to age our cheese on wood planks, an art that has been practiced in Europe for thousands of years," Wisconsin cheesemaker Chris Roelli told the blog Cheese Underground — one of the first to report on the issue.

Cheesemakers have already gotten members of Congress involved to prevent the FDA from taking away their boards. Rep. Peter Welsh of Vermont and several bipartisan colleagues sent this letter to other House members, which reads in part:

"Artisan cheese makers already have rigorous protocols in place to assure the safety of their product. Instead of banning a centuries-old aging process and triggering a possible trade war with Europe, the FDA should take a deep breath and work collaboratively with food scientists and cheese makers to ensure their products meet the high standards expected by cheese loving consumers around the world."

By Tuesday night, it seemed the FDA had taken a deep breath and suggesting a dialogue with cheesemakers about the cleanliness of wooden boards.

The American Cheese Society concurs that so far, there's no evidence that boards used to age cheese have gotten people sick.

So how do you clean a wooden cheese aging board? The ACS recommends kiln, air and heat drying, as well as sanitizing with "acceptable products."

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April Fulton is a former editor with NPR's Science Desk and a contributor to The Salt, NPR's Food Blog.
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