FDA is clarifying a statement that sent cheesemakers into a panic earlier this year implying the government body would take steps to end the century-old practice of using wooden boards to age cheese.
“To be clear, we have not and are not prohibiting or banning the long-standing practice of using wood shelving in artisanal cheese,” read a letter from FDA. “Nor does the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) require any such action. Reports to the contrary are not accurate.”
Controversy surrounding the use of wooden shelving began in January after a communication was released between agency officials and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services addressing questions from the state about the use of the shelving.
The agency responded saying the use of wooden shelves for cheese ripening does not conform to requirements that dictate all equipment must be adequately cleaned and sanitized.
The letter further stated, “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.”
FDA said it is aware the statement prompted concern, and it was not intended to be an official policy. The agency further admitted language used may have appeared more definitive than it should have.
In FDA’s recent statement to clarify the policy, it said the agency’s regulations do not specifically address the use of shelving made from wood in the cheesemaking process and there is no action currently being taken based solely on the use of wooden shelves.
However, FDA said it has taken action where contamination was found on wood shelving and has found Listeria monocytogenes in more than 20 percent of inspections of artisanal cheesemakers since 2010.
But FDA was quick to point out it does not have data linking the contamination directly to the use of wood shelving.
FDA officials said they welcome an open dialogue with the cheesmaking community to discuss the current requirements and use of wood shelving moving forward.