The U.S. FDA welcomes an “open dialogue” with the artisanal cheesemaking community and state officials to discuss the safety of aging certain types of cheeses on wooden shelving. In a constituent update on June 11, the FDA said that recent reports that the agency is taking steps to end the practice of using wooden boards to age cheese “are not accurate.”
“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,” according to the update provided by FDA press officer Lauren E. Sucher.
Concerns that the FDA is enforcing regulations about wooden shelving received widespread attention after an FDA inspection of several New York state cheesemakers. A January 2014 communication from the agency’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ Division of Milk Control and Dairy Service, in response to questions from New York State, was widely interpreted as a policy statement that the aging of cheese on wooden boards would no longer be permitted. The FDA has now made clear that the language used in that communication “may have appeared more definitive than it should have, in light of the agency’s actual practices on this issue.”
The FDA has no regulations that specifically address the use of wooden shelving in cheesemaking, and it “has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves,” according to the update. Enforcement action has been taken, however, when Listeria monocytogenes was identified at facilities that use wooden shelving. Since 2010, the agency has found the bacterium in more than 20 percent of inspections of artisanal cheesemakers, but the agency has no data directly linking these contaminations with use of wooden shelving.
Current FDA regulations state that utensils and other surfaces in contact with food must be adequately cleanable and properly maintained, and it “has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and these concerns have been noted in its inspectional findings.”
A position statement from the American Cheese Society asserts that aging cheese on wood has a “long track record of safety,” and that wood can be safely used when “all surfaces are properly cleaned and maintained using sanitation steps that assure the destruction of pathogens.” A report in Dairy Pipeline, published by the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, reaffirms that wood boards do not “seem to present any danger of contamination by pathogenic bacteria as long as a thorough cleaning procedure is followed.”