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June 11, 2014

Local firms blast FDA's cheese decree

Agency claims wood surfaces are unsanitary

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — 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.

Corinne Brovetto, with her husband, Ronald, and son, Russell, has been making artisanal cheese for 14 years at their Harpersfield Dairy operation. She said the family recently spent 11 hours with an FDA inspector who went over their cheese-making production area with a fine tooth comb. The inspector also removed two wheels of cheese for laboratory inspection, she said.

“They were worth $90,” she noted.

The reports sent back to the family by federal officials showed there was no evidence of any pathogen contamination, she pointed out.

Corinne Brovetto, in an interview with The Daily Star, said before the inspector left the farm she related she was impressed with the level of cleanliness, but added: “Technically, I should write you up because you’re using wooden boards.”

Corinne Brovetto said the boards, used in the cave room where the cheese is allowed to age, are cleaned, washed and aired out regularly.

“This will be terrible financially for us if we have to give up the wooden boards,” she said. She and other cheesemakers interviewed said FDA officials suggested no alternatives when asked what type of surface should be used in place of the wood.

On Tuesday, staff aides to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., indicated that the senator plans to push the FDA today to back off on its campaign to end the use of wooden boards in the making of cheese.

The senator, who had arranged for the Cooperstown Cheese products to be featured at the inauguration celebration, is slated to speak to reporters from his Washington office today on the subject.

But it appeared later Tuesday afternoon that the FDA was listening to the rising clamor about its enforcement efforts.

An FDA official, responding to an inquiry from The Daily Star, said the statements made by Metz in her letter to New York state Agriculture and Markets official was “not a policy statement.”

Lauren Sucher, an FDA spokeswoman, said, “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.”

She added that “in the interest of public health, the FDA’s current regulations state that utensils and other surfaces that contact food must be ‘adequately cleanable’ and properly maintained. Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings. FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.”

Sucher said her agency “will engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving.”

Both Sweitzer and Brovetto said they wanted to know he FDA has similar concerns with imported artisan cheese, which has been produced using similar wooden boards for centuries.

They said it would be highly unfair to domestic cheese producers if all the enforcement action is aimed at them but is not directed at the imported products.