Federal regulators are pushing makers of artisan cheese to stop using wooden boards in the aging process, a move that local cheesemakers say is a ham-fisted approach to an industry that has not been linked to food-safety problems.
Not only that, they say, but the crackdown on wooden boards in the production is a direct threat to the livelihood of farmers who benefit from the nation’s growing appetite for craft cheese.
“This will squash everyone in this country who makes cheese the European way,” said Bob Sweitzer, co-owner of the Cooperstown Cheese Company on State Route 28 in Milford.
He and his business partner, Sharon Thomaselli, use boards in the production of their cheeses, including varieties that were selected in 2013 for the inauguration celebration of President Barack Obama following his re-election to a second term.
The crackdown began after a federal Food and Drug Administration official called wooden boards unsanitary.
Monica Metz, of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, advised the state Department of Agriculture and Markets recently that the wooden boards’ porous structure both inside the wood and on the surface posed risk of bacteria contamination. She suggested that wood cannot be properly sanitized and argued that the boards fail to conform to a government rule dealing with the cleanliness of plant equipment and utensils.
There was swift reaction from the makers of artisanal cheese. The internet blog Cheese Underground noted over the weekend: “A sense of disbelief and distress is rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community.”
FDA officials have cited the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act as the reason why they have been moving ahead with their enforcement actions, which have only impacted small cheese makers, as the titans of the industry, such as Kraft Foods, do not use wooden boards to age cheese.