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?