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June 12, 2014

Schumer to FDA: Back off cheesemakers

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., branded efforts by the Food and Drug Administration to discourage the use of wooden boards in cheese making Wednesday as “a classic case of bureaucratic overreach.”

“The FDA has not made their policy clear, and this has created significant confusion, fear and uncertainty among upstate New York’s cheesemakers,” Schumer said after The Daily Star drew local attention to the issue in a front page story in Wednesday morning’s edition.

Schumer said the FDA’s muddled approach to the use of boards in aging cheese has stoked fear among artisans of the craft that they could be forced to abandon use of tools that have been employed in the process for centuries.

He also said the FDA has yet to clarify whether it has the same concern about wooden boards used in imported cheese as it does for the domestic makers of a product whose popularity has grown dramatically among American consumers in recent years.

If a ban on wooden boards and shelving were imposed on cheesemakers, the senator said, it could cost individual producers tens of thousands of dollars in unexpected costs.

Two local cheesemakers — Bob Sweitzer, co-owner of Cooperstown Cheese Co. in Milford, and Corinne Brovetto of Harpersfield Dairy — both told The Daily Star this week they were deeply concerned about the impact on their respective businesses if the FDA moved ahead with a ban on wooden boards in cheese ripening.

Said Schumer: “The FDA is rightly focused on making our food as safe as possible. But in this instance they have focused their attention on the wrong thing and have failed to take into account how such an interpretation would affect the cheese industry.”

Cheese makers said FDA inspectors appeared to step up their scrutiny of production facilities in upstate New York after an FDA official advised the state Department of Agriculture and Markets in January that the federal agency viewed the use of wooden boards and shelving in cheese aging as “a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms in the finished products.”

Schumer said there has been no evidence linking the consumption of artisan cheese to human illness, although he noted that one FDA inspection of a cheese production facility in the Finger Lakes region turned up evidence of listeria contamination.

However, the senator added, the wooden aging process has passed muster in scientific studies, including one conducted by the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research. That study, he said, determined that the benefits from using wooden boards in cheese ripening far outweighed the risks.

The FDA said on Tuesday that it had not adopted any rules banning the boards, and that the viewpoints concerned the use of board that were expressed by one of the federal agency’s officials in January did not represent FDA policy.

After Schumer scheduled a press briefing on the cheese dustup, New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., also chimed in on the issue, calling on the FDA to allow cheese producers to continue to use wood in the aging process.

New York produced more than 750 million pounds of cheese in 2012, according to Schumer.