Cheeseboarding (Update FTW?)

Old guy in the cell: What are you in for?

New guy in the cell:  I aged cheese on wooden boards.

Old guy: Oh. (Moves away slowly.)

The news broke on CNN that a Utica child, Sally, had fallen ill after eating some cheddar on her well-done burger. Her parents were interviewed, mother crying and father angry. “How?” he yelled.  “How can they let a child get sick because of cheese?”  The mother added in a soft, quiet voice, “we have to stop this so no other mother has to suffer watching her baby suffer the agony of a tummy ache.  We have to do this for the children.”

From Walter Olson at Overlawyered, the FDA has interpreted the Food Safety Modernization Act to preclude the aging of cheese on wood boards.  Much as you may not think this touches your life, it does if you happen to enjoy any better cheese than velveeta. From CheeseUnderground:

A sense of disbelief and distress is quickly rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community, as the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week announced it will not permit American cheesemakers to age cheese on wooden boards.

And, one would presume that this also means cheeses aged in France on wood boards won’t be allowed into the country. There will be mass cheese seizures at the border, with camembert dumped into the Atlantic like bales of marijuana.  The FDA explains why wooden boards are killers:

“Microbial pathogens can be controlled if food facilities engage in good manufacturing practice. Proper cleaning and sanitation of equipment and facilities are absolutely necessary to ensure that pathogens do not find niches to reside and proliferate. Adequate cleaning and sanitation procedures are particularly important in facilities where persistent strains of pathogenic microorganisms like Listeria monocytogenes could be found. The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP requirements, which require that “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.” 21 CFR 110.40(a). Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized. 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.”

Clean and sterile is what matters most, as “microbial pathogens” sounds very scary.  It’s not that the wooden boards used to age cheese can’t be cleaned, or that it’s not in the best interests of cheese makers to be sure to do so as they don’t want anyone getting sick, and surely don’t want it traced back to them, the problem is that wood can’t be cleaned as well as stainless steel or plastic.  And really, isn’t plastic just as good as wood, provided you aren’t a slave to flavor?

Many of the most awarded and well-respected American artisan cheeses are currently aged on wooden boards. American Cheese Society triple Best in Show winner Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin is cured on wooden boards. Likewise for award-winners Cabot Clothbound in Vermont, current U.S. Champion cheese Marieke Feonegreek, and 2013 Best in Show Runner-Up Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar.

But don’t despair, cheese lovers. Monsanto-Halliburton Cheese Corporation products never touch wood.  And a little recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) has never been conclusively proven to harm any child.

If you were concerned that Gibson Guitars presented an unnecessary show of force when the SWAT team rolled in to seize the offending ebony fretboards, it won’t be much prettier to have the armored vehicle crash through a cheesemaker’s door.  More to the point, this is about the pervasive adoration of perfect safety above all else, and the use of federal regulatory fiat to prevent any threat, real or perceived, that could possibly make a parent cry.

So what if our attempts to rid our children’s world of microbial pathogens has given rise to supergerms, antibiotic resistant bacteria that can’t be stopped?  Rather than have them wash their hands in antibiotic soaps, we would do better to let them eat dirt, build up the normal resistance to the world around us, and strengthen their immune systems so they wouldn’t have to be sheltered and bubble-wrapped.

There is a price to be paid for having fine cheeses, or any number of other foods, drinks, things that humans have come to value for their wonders over the centuries and millennia.  They may not be laboratory perfect.  There is a potential, given the information that modern science provides, for harm, even if it can largely be avoided by a bit of effort.  Still, the potential exists, and there may well be the occasional outbreak. It can happen.

The alternative is to live in a world of tasteless sanitary perfection.  Every effort to eliminate any possibility of harm brings us closer to assured mediocrity, where humans will only be able to taste flavors made in labs and designed to meet the expectations and demand of the lowest common denominators.  Sugar and salt will pretty much cover it all.

So mom and dad, is that the world you want to hand over to your wonderfully healthy (except for the Type 2 Diabetes) child?  Will you rest easy knowing that artisanal cheesemakers are securely held in the SHU, where they can harm no child again?

Update:  Via Wally,

Yes! Following an enormous outcry from cheese makers, commentators, and the general public, the agency beats a hasty retreat. Commentator/ Pepperdine lawprof Greg McNeil has the details at Forbes (and his earlier commentary on the legalities of the agency’s action is also informative).

Lest this small victory for camembert be cause for too much celebration, consider:

It happens that a large number of editors, commentators, and others among the chattering classes are both personally interested in the availability of fine cheese and familiar enough with the process by which it is made to be un-cowed by claims of superior agency expertise.

Let the hoi polloi have their brie.  There’s still the cross-contamination of Kalamatta olives problem. A world without tapenade?

77 comments on “Cheeseboarding (Update FTW?)

  1. PJ

    I swear there is a guy at FDA who watches the news channels for signs of un-safety just so they can swoop in and ban the offending item.

    My favorite fragrance free hand soap was recently banned. The FDA was worried that it was not truly fragrance free. (Why would we all have continued to buy it if it wasn’t?) Funny, but the expensive stuff made by a big manufacturer was not banned.

  2. Olorin

    Reminds me of a similar move about twenty years ago, when some wizard of smart moved that all wood chopping boards be removed from commercial kitchens. Turns out that the plastic ones were worse: not only did microscopic pieces of plastic end up in patrons’ meals, but the natural oils in the wooden boards (almost all of which are maple) helped to keep down the very pathogens the regulations were designed to remove.

    “Life is not one thing after another; life is the same damn thing over and over.”

    1. SHG Post author

      There was a guy on a recent episode of Shark Tank who tried to explain this. But they were too smart to listen, because if you achieve success in one realm, you become naturally knowledgeable about everything. It’s amazing how that happens.

    2. Kent Howard

      They are called phenols and are toxic to most bacteria. A natural component in wood and the ingredient of disinfectants in commercial sanitation solutions. Another example of poor science applied to regulation.

  3. NikFromNYC

    We went through this already with wooden cutting boards that were later found to be naturally antibiotic, unlike plastic.

    1. SHG Post author

      My research has failed to provide proof that wood cutting boards are safer than plastic. Notably, there is similarly no proof that plastic is safer than wood either.

      1. alpharia

        Excuse me but why are you even using cutting boards???

        Don’t you all know that cutting requires knives and knives are just anathema to safety? ! The horror!

  4. tim maguire

    Blessed are the cheesemakers! (I can’t believe a whole essay was written about cheesemakers and that line did not appear anywhere.)

    Am I imagining things or is a recognition finally growing that our obsession with safety is making life less worth living? Hopefully the day is not far off that all the different people seeing this nonsense play out in their own sphere reach critical mass such that they join together to stop the madness.

    1. bobbymike

      Please post the Monty Python ‘Cheese Shop’ sketch where the shop has no cheese, which with increasing regulations is where we are headed. The modern version the shop owner can just repeat FDA over and over as an exasperated John Cleese asks for the different cheeses.

  5. Steve S.

    “Potential”, “maybe”, “could” – these are words that should be banned from any and all government regulation.

    Either that, or take the enforcement capabailities away from the Federal agencies. If they need to have someone served or arrested, force them to work through local government.

      1. Steve S.

        No, but being forced to deal through local authority would impede the federal overreach. Raising our local taxes to enforce federal regulations such as this one will come more starkly to our attention at the local level.

          1. tim maguire

            What, you don’t want to exchange 1 tyrant 500 miles away for 500 tyrants 1 mile away?

            Seriously, though, while there is much truth to the observation that the local idiots are no better than the federal idiots, the local idiots are usually easier to set straight. Our whole system is based on the idea that government should be as local as possible for just that reason.

            1. SHG Post author

              This is a criminal law blog, and we’re kinda familiar with the harm done locally as well as federally. Much as you’re right that government closest to the people should be more responsive, reality doesn’t necessarily work out that way. This isn’t a matter of ideology, but pragmatics.

            2. bobbymike

              Federalism is about having the ability to move away from the local idiots, there is no escape from the federal idiots.

  6. goddessoftheclassroom

    I remember reading a story (sorry, I can’t remember its attribution) of US soldiers or airman billeted at an estate in England during WWII. To show their gratitude, they scrubbed down all the outbuildings with bleach before they left–including the dairy. The unintended consequence was the extinction of a bacteria strain unique to the place and thus the end of their cheese.

    Britisg author’s Jasper fforde’s “Thursday Next” series satirizes many things and features a black market in cheese, which goes to show that the risk of satire is making the ridiculous reality.

  7. Francis W. Porretto

    “Blessed are the cheesemakers, for theirs is the kingdom of cholesterol.”

    Say, isn’t cheese just milk that’s been deliberately infected with a “microbial pathogen?”

  8. Ian Bennett

    A child eats wood-aged cheese and gets ill so the natural reaction is to ban wood-aged cheese. No consideration was given to the possibility of having wood-aged cheese labelled as such, so that those who prefer it, and accept the minimal risk, can continue to enjoy it, while those who consider the risk too great can avoid it.

    1. SHG Post author

      This would be pointless, as everyone knows wood-aged cheeses do not come in cellophane wrapped slices or out of a can.

          1. UltravioletAdmin

            Just because cheese is canned, doesn’t mean it’s easy cheese. It’s a quite good aged cheddar from the dairy at WSU with the entire wheel placed in a can for aging.

  9. Eric Rasmusen

    Of course, this cheeseboarding occurred with the full knowledge and approval of the Bush Administration. Isn’t it wonderful that we now have a President who protects our civil liberties? All who voted for him must be very proud at this moment.

    1. SHG Post author

      Ordinarily, I would trash a comment like this, as this isn’t a political blog. But sadly, the effort to create a perfect world is largely a progressive construct, and so they get what they deserve here.

      1. pst314

        As I recall, the EU imposed similar sanitary regulations on cheese makers (and many other food makers). Wooden vats and boards were banned. Stainless steel vats and equipment and sterile procedures were required. There was much lamentation that this would destroy most of the rich regional variety of French cheeses, which depend on highly local strains of mold etc.
        Your readers probably know more about what has happened with these EU regulations.

        1. UltravioletAdmin

          They ended up making an exception for hard cheeses in the aging process.

  10. jb willikers

    I am applying to the FDA for a job since I am exceptionally good at perceiving what is “unsafe.” I think that for restaurants and food processors there should be a clean floor and air standard, single use sanitation sterilization, daily mandatory shower, and UV facilities where all personnel would be required to scrub down and depathogenize, daily, blood tests, , as well as psychological screening to weed out “high risk” employees.

  11. Pingback: FDA moves to ban cheese aging on wooden boards - Overlawyered

  12. Ben Wilson

    A number of years ago the County Health Department (or their equivalent) in Vancouver, BC prohibited all the Vancouver Chinatown food establishments from preparing food on wood — for the very same reason. It caused a huge outcry — and was reversed with the Health Department was unable to show even one cause of food poisoning related to the use of wood surfaces.

  13. John Neff

    Has anyone told the FDA that “You eat a peck of dirt before you die.” They used to say that when was growing up and I knew what a peck was at the time. My recollection was that it was a substantial amount.
    The wimps shall inherit the earth.

    1. SHG Post author

      The reason no one knows what a peck is anymore is that the FDA outlawed them to end the eating dirt epidemic.

  14. PattyB

    I love your comment in the rules section, ” If you don’t like the rules, comment elsewhere.” My first thought when reading this article was, “if your kid gets sick on cheese, don’t feed it to him.” My kids were raised to play outside and they came home righteously dirty which a shower cured. I only had to worry about the normal childhood diseases. Mostly colds and flu.

    1. SHG Post author

      There was nothing I liked better than my kids coming home dirty and sweaty. It meant they had a good day.

  15. jeanneb

    OMG! Cheesemaking involves bacteria. And fermentation. And BLOOMING MOLD CULTURES!!!!!!!

    How could we have fed this to our children for thousands of years???!!!!!!!

  16. willis

    I was reading your article, when suddenly I was dumbstruck with the realization that cheese makers are actually putting bacteria into the cheese to make it. Never mind bacteria that may be on the board it’s aging on, they are puttiing bacteria IN THE CHEESE1 Does the FDA even know this? How can they be letting this go on? This isn’t the kind of government service we’ve grow to expect. The IRS, NSA, and DOJ must look into this now.

    1. Mark

      Please don’t give them any more ideas than they already have. A significant number of cheeses are not available in the US and cannot be imported in the US as they are made from “raw milk” – not the pasteurized version. Take camembert, for example. What you see and pay an outrageous price for in the US grocery stores is, at best, a pale imitation of the real thing (at least in my experience). The key problem is the requirement that pasteurized milk be used as opposed to the raw milk.

  17. Joseph Hertzlinger

    We might someday be faced with a political contest between someone who wants to ban cheese aged on wooden boards and someone who wants to ban cheese with rGBH. Can’t both sides lose?

  18. RebeccaH

    Good grief. When cheddar got moldy in our fridge, my father used to lop off the moldy parts and eat it anyway. He said that was part of the aging process. None of us ever got sick from cheese. Cheese can get hard and tasteless, but I never heard of anybody actually getting sick from cheese. What planet do these people live on?

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  21. Darcie Boschee

    Has anyone been able to independently verify this? I have never seen this “FDA response” allegedly made by Ms. Metz. All of the references I find trace back to one blog post.

  22. PrepNow

    Banning natural, wild, airborne yeast will be next. Headline reads: “Wild yeast found in San Fran linked to female infections, sourdough breads to be eradicated.”

    {{with a glazed dead stare in my eyes}} I say “must…have…more…government…regulations” {{eyes no longer glazed over}} WINK ;-)

    1. SHG Post author

      I saw the word “glazed” and thought you were about to get into donuts. Then the irony of the yeast hit me, and I couldn’t bear the connection. I will block this comment from my mind forever.

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  24. bill

    Normally, trips to SJ are a good part of my day. I do my homework before commenting. So I learned what Cheesewhiz is and how its made. The next time I say something stupid before really doing my homework, you should give me one pass, for what I learned makes me never want to google again. Not a free pass, mind you, just a one time future reprieve

    1. SHG Post author

      Cheez whiz is perfect on Philly cheesesteaks. Well, that pretty much covers it. But since I’m a magnanimous guy, you get a one-time future reprieve, provided you don’t make my head explode and get goo all over my screen.

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  27. simple-touriste

    Here in France, I have not ever ever heard about serious issues with cheese made with raw milk. There were a few issues, but with cheese made with pasteurized milk.

    Of course raw milk is living thing and must be handled with care. Raw milk can become dangerous if used badly.

    Anyway, given the quantity of cheese we eat (real cheese, not this stateless stuff called “cheese” in America you put in burgers), so if there were real safety issues, French children should have more food intoxications than anywhere else.

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