FDA considers ban that would dramatically impact cheese industry - KCTV5

FDA considers ban that would dramatically impact cheese industry

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Green Dirt Farm owners Sarah Hoffman and Jacqueline Smith Green Dirt Farm owners Sarah Hoffman and Jacqueline Smith

It started in New York state, but it has potential worldwide ramifications. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has notified regulators in New York that the common practice of aging cheese on wooden boards may be banned, impacting not only domestic artisanal cheese producers who use wood boards to age their cheese, but also tens of thousands of U.S. businesses that import cheese from abroad.

The reasoning, according to the FDA, is that wooden shelves and boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized and therefore do not conform to regulations regarding plant equipment and utensils.

Continuing, the agency stated that "proper cleaning and sanitation of equipment and facilities are absolutely necessary to ensure that pathogens do not find niches to reside and proliferate."

Local cheese maker Sarah Hoffman, who co-owns Green Dirt Farms, a sheep's milk cheese producer based in Westin, MO, said while the debate does not impact her or her cheeses directly, she is concerned with the possible consequences.

"This strikes me as intrusive, over-reaching regulation, especially since the ruling is not based in evidence, but seems to fulfill an anti-small scale producer agenda within the agency," Hoffman stated.

Hoffman said Green Dirt Farms never adopted the practice of aging its cheeses on wood because "Missouri state inspectors made it clear that they frowned on the use of wood," and because "most of our style cheeses are not traditionally aged on wood, and wouldn't benefit from the practice."

Hoffman seems dubious of the agency's motivation. "Wooden aging planks have been used for generations in Europe, and that practice has ample evidence pointing to its safety. I suspect the FDA is pursuing this on entirely theoretical grounds and has not truly evaluated the existing research and historical evidence," Hoffman told KCTV5.

Local cheese monger and cheese expert Lincoln Broadbooks, who manages the Better Cheddar shop in Prairie Village, said a ban on wood aging would be bad on many levels. "It concerns me as a cheese lover because it would impact the kind of cheeses we can import. It also concerns me as a businessman because any new regulations enacted would force some American cheese makers to retool, which would cost them money. Those costs would ultimately be passed on to the consumer," Broadbooks said.

In a statement issued Tuesday, the agency appeared to back off some of its previous comments, adding that it is '"always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese."

The FDA said it will talk to artisanal cheese makers across the country to see if certain types of cheese can be made safely by aging them on wooden shelves.

In Western Missouri, one such cheese maker said she can only hope the FDA does not move forward with what she considers a very harmful action. "It's a shame and would result in more homogenous and undistinguished food products in the United States," Hoffman concluded.

Broadbooks added these thoughts. "It's concerning because it's difficult to know what's going to happen. For businesses, that's never a good thing."

At this point, there's no indication when the FDA may make a final decision on the matter.

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