Responding to opposing reports, the FDA yesterday issued a statement insisting it is "not prohibiting or banning the long-standing practice of using wood shelves in artisanal cheese."
"Nor does the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) require such action. Reports to the contrary are not accurate."
In a January 2014 letter to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ (NYSDAM) Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services, the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) stated that “the use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP requirements.”
Months on, the FDA says that it was a “responsive letter” and that it “was not intended as an official policy statement.”
“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,” said a additional statement.
“Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.”
While no policy has been introduced, the FDA still has concerns about the use of wooden boards and shelves.
The FDA even took to Facebook to spread the word.
In its letter to the NYSDAM Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services, CFSAN cited FDA regulation 21 CFR 110.40(a) which states “all plant equipment and utensils shall be so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable, and shall be properly maintained.”
It added that wooden boards and shelves cannot be adequately clean or sanitized, which is “particularly important in facilities where persistent strains of pathogenic microorganisms like Listeria monocytogenes could be found.”
“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," said the letter.
"The shelves or board used for aging make direct contact with finished products; hence they could be a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms in the finished products," it added.
CFSAN also claimed that since 2010, Listeria monocytogenes has been found during more than 20% of inspections of artisanal cheesemakers.
It said, however, that it "does not have data that directly associates these instances of contamination with the use of wood shelving."
The American Cheese Society (ACS), which represents the interests of those involved in the trade of US-made artisanal and specialty cheese makers, jumped on this point.
“For centuries, cheesemakers have been creating delicious nutritious, unique cheeses aged on wood," it said in a statement issued yesterday.
“Today’s cheesemakers – large and small, domestic and international – continue to use this material for production due to its inherent safety, unique contribution to the aging and flavour-development process, and track record of safety as part of overall plant hygiene and good manufacturing practices. No foodborne illness outbreak has been found to be caused by the use of wood as an aging surface," the ACS statement continued.