FDA has recently challenged the use of wooden planks (shelving) to age certain cheeses, a practice that has been going on for centuries. The Agency is concerned that wood absorbs and retains certain bacteria, such as listeria, that can sicken cheese consumers. Many domestic and imported cheeses are aged on wood shelves, such as parmesan and certain blue varieties.
FDA’s Center for Food Safety communicated this concern to the New York State Agriculture Department, in response to an inquiry from the State about the issue. The inquiry was prompted by a warning letter and proposed consent decree sent by the Agency in October 2013 to Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese Company in upstate New York, following an inspection of the company’s production facility that FDA said turned up listeria contamination. FDA took the position that wood shelving used to age cheese could be a hazardous substance, citing a longstanding regulation requiring cheesemaking equipment to be “adequately cleanable” and “properly maintained.”
An ensuing outcry from cheese producers, particularly New York and Vermont artisanal makers, caused FDA on June 11 to issue a “Clarification on Using Wood Shelving in Artisanal Cheesemaking.” The Agency backtracked somewhat, acknowledging that “the language used in this communication (to New York State) may have appeared more definitive than it should have,” and “FDA does not have data that directly associates these instances of contamination (past inspectional observations) with the use of wood shelving.” FDA stated that it “will engage with the artisanal community, state officials and others” to have an “open dialogue” about the issue.