FDA rules jeopardize Vt. cheese industry - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

FDA rules jeopardize Vt. cheese industry

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Cheese has been aged on wood for hundreds of years. Now the Food and Drug Administration is saying no more. As the federal FDA seeks to enforce part of a 2011 law, some Vermont cheese artisans have found themselves in the cross hairs of the new regulation.

Tom Bivins, the head of the Vermont Cheese Council expressed concern over the potential consequences of the new enforcements. "I'm hoping there will be a chance to speak with the FDA and get some greater clarity on this particular issue," Bivens said.

This is not a new FDA regulation; rather it’s something they are just now enforcing. Using the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA cited several New York Cheese maker’s last week for using wood surfaces to age their cheese.

The FDA is concerned that microbial pathogens could grow on the wood and poses a health risk to consumers. The basis for such regulations is contained within the FDA's Good Manufacturing Practice regulations which states:

"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...adequately cleanable, and shall be properly maintained."

Artisan cheese makers often place their cheese on wood which helps develop the brine on the cheese, giving it its unique flavor. Vermont companies like Jasper Hill and Thistle Hill could be uniquely affected. Bivens says that enforcing these regulations could run some artisan cheese companies in Vermont out of business.

"I think it could be detrimental," Bivins said. "And I think it would hinder growth in this industry."

While not all cheese is aged on wood most popular farmstead cheeses are. The practice of aging cheese on wood dates back hundreds of years to Europe. While American consumers like their aged soft cheeses, even some French cheeses may not be coming to the United States any longer.

The FDA says that not only will American cheese makers be subject to this rule, but cheeses imported on wood subject to the regulations as well. French cheese lovers could see their favorite products sent back to Europe.

"Their regulations in France say that they must age on wood, so if this gets enforced," Bivins explained. "Those cheeses won't be coming to the United States."

Cheese makers do have other options for aging their cheese; some like Rick Woods have gone to stainless steel or plastic. The FDA says such shelves are easier to clean and thus more resistant to microbial pathogens.

"We figured we could get most of what we were trying to achieve on either stainless or plastic, knowing that these FDA rules were out there," said Woods who moved to a new facility in 2011.

The Obama administration signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011 and now it is unexpectedly impacting this large industry in Vermont. The law was designed to limit food safety concerns. In 2011, the year the law was signed, over 1,300 Americans died of from known pathogens, and now it’s those pathogens that the Food and Drug Administration is trying to keep out of the cheese industry.

Cheese makers are now left to wonder when the FDA will begin enforcing this regulation across the board.

FDA Statement:

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. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.

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.

The FDA 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.

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