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FDA Will Back Down on Wooden Shelves for Aging Cheese

Update Date: Jun 12, 2014 10:02 AM EDT

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) caused a bit of a stir when it stated that the wooden shelves used to age cheese were unsanitary. Cheese makers throughout the world have used these wooden shelves to enhance the flavors of cheese for decades and the FDA's recent statement suggested that these planks could be regulated or banned.

"Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized," the FDA branch chief Monica Metz, in charge of dairy and egg safety, 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."

Since the FDA announced that cheese makers would no longer be able to age their cheeses on wooden shelves earlier this week, several cheese makers and other experts have openly criticized the agency. Many of them argued that the use of wooden planks is a part of a tradition that has been practiced for thousands of years in Europe.

"This rule, if consistently enforced, will both throw an enormous wrench into many American cheesemakers' operations and drastically shake up the availability of many beloved European cheeses," L.V. Anderson wrote reported by the Los Angeles Times.

Due to the uproar, the FDA had issued another statement clarifying its position. On Wednesday, the agency stated that "The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA requirement in effect that addresses this issue." The FDA added that it has not enforced any actions against the use of wooden shelves and the agency plans on working with cheese makers in deciding ways to improve the safety in using these shelves.

"In the interest of public health, the FDA's current regulations state that utensils and other surfaces that contact food must be 'adequately cleanable' and properly maintained. Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings. FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese," the FDA wrote. "The FDA will engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving."

For now, the cheese-making world is safe.

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