FDA Bows to Public Pressure in Cheese-Aging Battle

The Food and Drug Administration shook up the artisanal cheese community earlier this month by announcing it would no longer allow cheese makers to age their product on wooden boards. For the uninitiated, aging cheese on wooden boards is a centuries-old practice, one that many small American cheese makers employ and how much of our imported European cheese is made. But in the face of an intense backlash, the FDA eventually backed away from its ruling–but the future of this practice remains uncertain.

The initial surprise ruling came in a reply to the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets’ Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services, who reached out to the FDA for clarification after several New York cheese makers were cited for using wood aging practices.

Monica Metz, of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, provided the response, stating that wood aging cheese is considered an unsanitary practice and therefore a violation of their Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations.
The move left many in the artisanal cheese community worrying how such a rule may affect their livelihood. Among these are Margot Brooks and Alexander Eaton, founders of New York-based Sugar House Creamery. To create and ripen their signature cheese, Dutch Knuckle, the couple constructed an underground cave filled with shelves of locally milled spruce.

For Brooks, moving away from wood aging would affect not just her bottom line but the love of her craft:

“It would certainly take away a lot of what I love about cheese making. It just wouldn’t be the same for me not to be able to use that material. It’s hard to describe, but you walk into the cave and see all the cheese, and it’s really beautiful. You smell the wood when you walk into the cave, and that’s definitely contributing to the flavor of the cheese, to the rind.”

As with many regulatory decisions, the brunt of the burden would fall on small business owners—in this case, artisanal cheese makers. Cheese making giants such as Leprino and Kraft manufacture cheese at a scale that does not require artisanal practices like wood aging, and are large enough to absorb the costs of any regulatory ruling.

When Ms. Metz’s ruling was made public, there was an outpouring of condemnation from the vocal artisanal cheese community. The American Cheese Society released a statement challenging the FDA’s assertions that aging cheese on wood was unsanitary and should be discontinued. In short time, the FDA found itself reeling and backed down from Ms. Metz’s statement, saying that “we have not and are not prohibiting or banning the long-standing practice of using wood shelving in artisanal cheese,” and promised to consult with the artisanal cheese community prior to any future rulings.

End of story, right? If previous history is a guide, the answer is “No.” As Baylen Linnekin, of Keep Food Legal, explains, this may just be the beginning of a more drawn out approach by the FDA to getting what it wants.

The silver lining of this FDA-cheese episode is the hope it gives regulated industries and the community at large. Greg McNeal writes:

“This is also a lesson for people in other regulated industries. When government officials make pronouncements that don’t seem grounded in law or policy, and threaten your livelihood with an enforcement action, you must organize and fight back. While specialized industries may think that nobody cares, the fight over aged cheese proves that people’s voices can be heard.”

At the Institute for Justice, we believe that the voice of the people is the most important of all. If you believe a government action may harm you or someone you know, don’t be afraid to get involved.

— Javier Sosa
Javier Sosa is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice

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