Are the world's great cheeses in danger of extinction at the hands of germophobe regulators? Officials with the federal Food and Drug Administration, whose job description includes being obsessively vigilant about food-borne pathogens, say no — or at least not anytime soon.
Fear spread through the cheese world this week after comments by FDA officials hinted at stricter regulations for cheesemakers using wood shelving — a common part of the cheese-aging process and crucial in the process of creating some of the world's most flavorful varieties.
"Cheese is not just milk that's coagulated. It's a confluence of environment," said Laura Werlin, cheese expert and instructor at The Cheese School of San Francisco. "The wood shelving (on which cheese is aged) allows for the microbe village that creates the flavors, texture and rind of cheese," qualities that let the cheese grow and develop into "what it's supposed to be," Werlin told KQED's Mina Kim in an interview Wednesday (audio embedded below).
In recent statements, the FDA warned that those wood shelves and boards could also harbor pathogens — like the illness-causing bacteria Listeria monocytogenes — because they cannot be adequately cleaned. Thus, they do not conform to regulations pertaining to plant equipment and utensils. In a letter sent to New York state officials earlier this year, regulators wrote that proper cleaning and sanitation are "absolutely necessary to ensure that pathogens do not find niches to reside and proliferate."
The statements sent waves of dismay through the cheese world, which depends on the wooden shelves for the production of many beloved cheeses.
"A sense of disbelief and distress is rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community," wrote the blog Cheese Underground.
The American Cheese Society, a trade association based in Denver, also posted an alert to its members, assuring them it was mobilizing to learn more about the issue. Nora Weiser, executive director for the society, said the aging of cheese on wood boards has never been an issue in the past. She said state inspectors have generally just worked with cheesemakers to ensure the wood is being properly cleaned.
Werlin agrees that wood can be thoroughly cleaned. "If you ask any cheesemaker, they clean the heck out of their boards every time they use them," she said. "Some would argue that wood is safer than other shelving, plastic or otherwise. These cheeses have been aged on wood boards for centuries without people getting sick."
The FDA issued a statement Wednesday to calm the fears of cheesemakers and those who crave their products. The agency acknowledged the language used in its letter to New York officials "may have appeared more definitive than it should have, in light of the agency’s actual practices on this issue."
The FDA says those practices include inspections and action against cheesemakers when Listeria monocytogenes is found on their premises. The agency adds that, since 2010, it has found the offending bacterium in about 20 percent of artisanal cheesemakers but that it does not have data that show a direct connection between the bacteria and the use of wooden shelving. The FDA said it's looking forward to a continued "open dialogue" on the issue.
By Wednesday night, the American Cheese Society said in an email to its members that the agency had given assurances that it "is not taking a hard stance from which they cannot back away. ... and that FDA would never take action without going through the normal regulatory steps including a public comment period."
So, rest easy cheese fans. Your artisanal Comté is safe, for now.