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Senators urges FDA to issue clear guidelines ensuring artisan cheese makers can continue to use wooden boards

WASHINGTON DC – After the U.S. Federal and Drug Administration (FDA) seemed to backtrack from banning the traditional practice of aging artisanal cheese on wooden boards, leaving New York artisan cheese makers and small businesses in limbo over whether or not the agency may still crack down on the practice, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand called on the FDA to issue clear guidelines to assure that artisan cheese makers can continue to use the decades-old practice without fear and outline definitive measures producers should take to protect public health. Senator also requested the FDA provide any scientific data that backs the agency’s original assertion that the practice is “unsanitary.”

“Our small businesses and artisan cheese makers in New York and around our nation rely on the centuries-old process of making cheese and worry that they may still be targeted,” said Senator Gillibrand. “The FDA must immediately clarify their rules to assure our producers that they would be able to continue to use wood to age their cheese, which is an integral part of their process.”

In a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, Senator Gillibrand wrote, “If the use of wood curing shelves is prohibited, it would have a substantial negative impact on many small, New York cheese producers as well as make many varieties of imported cheese unavailable to the American consumer… In light of the research into the time honored practice of curing cheese on wood boards, I ask that FDA issue guidance that would permit the continued, safe use of wood boards in cheese aging.”

The FDA cited several New York state cheese makers for using the boards during an inspection and recently issued guidelines to New York State noting that the use of wood for aging cheese is unsanitary and violates FDA regulations for food safety manufacturing. The FDA later seemed to backtrack, stating that the agency does not have a new policy banning the practice while expressing concern over whether or not wooden boards that contact food can be adequately cleaned.

Sen. Charles Schumer also called on the FDA to rethink its policy.

“Using wooden panels or shelves to age cheese is a practice that artisanal cheese producers have used for centuries, if not thousands of years, so the FDA calling into question its safety is the kind of thing that makes you want to scratch your head,” said Schumer. “The FDA has not made their policy clear, and this has created significant confusion, fear and uncertainty among Upstate New York’s cheesemakers, which threatens to undermine the growth of our burgeoning artisanal cheese industry. That is why I am asking the FDA to provide guidelines to cheesemakers that will make it crystal clear that wooden panels and shelves are safe to use for aging cheese both now and in the decades to come.”

Many American artisan cheeses are currently aged or ripened on wooden boards – an integral part of aging cheese to create texture and flavor. Award-winning cheeses produced in the U.S., including Cabot’s Clothbound cheddar and Parmigiano Reggiano, imported cheese such as Beaufort and Comte, and locally-produced cheese here in New York, such as the Muranda Cheese Company in the Finger Lakes region, would be harmed by this new rule.

Senator Gillibrand called on the FDA to make clear what proper steps cheese producers should take and provide data that shows substantive risk posed by this practice. Senator Gillibrand also pointed out that there is extensive research that shows use of wood in cheese manufacturing is not a risk to the consumer if the boards are properly sanitized. The use of wood boards in cheese curing may also develop good bacteria that inhibit dangerous pathogens such as Listeria