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Unconvinced By FDA, Welch To Move Forward With Cheese Aging Amendment

Skeptical of a recent statement by the Food and Drug Administration that the agency does not, in fact, intend to crack down on the practice of aging artisan cheese on wooden boards, Rep. Peter Welch said Thursday that he intends to move forward with an effort to block enforcement of that rule.

"Artisan cheese makers cannot afford to live with this threat to their livelihoods caused by regulatory ambiguity at the FDA." - Rep. Peter Welch

Welch was reacting to a constituent clarificationposted by the FDA Wednesday evening stating: "We have not and are not prohibiting or banning the long-standing practice of using wood shelving in artisanal cheese. Nor does the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) require any such action. Reports to the contrary are not accurate."

"Unfortunately, this 'clarification' directly contradicts a clear statement of FDA's position sent to my office on March 27 from headquarters staff," Welch stated in an email.

The email came from a member of the FDA Office of Legislation:

I inquired with FDA’s food center (the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition) regarding your question about the use of wooden shelves for the storing or aging of cheeses, and I was told they are not permitted and never have been. The use of wooden shelves for cheese ripening does not conform to current Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) regulations, 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.” See 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. This has been borne out by recent academic studies showing that the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes survived cleaning and sanitation on wooden shelves used for cheese ripening.

An FDA representative confirmed that the email Welch's office received was authentic. According to the representative, the email was "written based on the same information that the agency provided to the New York Dept. of Agriculture official, which was background information; the response to Rep. Welch was more definitive than it should have been."

The FDA's correspondence with the New York Department of Agriculture on the subject of cheese boards was the source of confusion about the agency's policy, as was originally reported on the blog Cheese Underground.

"It appears the FDA’s right hand doesn’t know what its left hand is doing," Welch said. "Which FDA should cheese makers listen to? We are moving forward with our amendment to prohibit the FDA from banning this centuries-old practice. Artisan cheese makers cannot afford to live with this threat to their livelihoods caused by regulatory ambiguity at the FDA."

Welch has proposed an amendment to H.R. 4800, the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies Appropriations Act. 

"None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to establish, implement, or enforce any prohibition against aging or ripening cheese on wood under section 110.40 of title 21, Code of Federal Regulations," the amendment states.

Updated on June 13, 2014 at 2:51 p.m. to include comments from the FDA.

Angela Evancie serves as Vermont Public's Senior VP of Content, and was the Director of Engagement Journalism and the Executive Producer of Brave Little State, the station's people-powered journalism project.
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