Tag Archives: cheese

FDA ruling — what to do?

I was working all day yesterday selling cheese so I didn’t have a chance to write anything about the FDA ruling that has the cheese world on fire right now. That’s probably for the best since Jeanne Carpenter – one of our community’s best assets (and the person who gave me the “Barbara Mandrell of the Cheese Counter” nickname) – posted a great piece on her site detailing what this ruling means to us as a community. I reposted in its entirely below but please go to her site and subscribe to her blog. It is a must-read for cheese folks.

This is a big deal.

I have gotten questions from a few folks who love cheese but don’t know why the use of wood aging boards is such a big issue for us. Fair enough… if one is not a cheese professional or a science geek it is not likely they have had the opportunity to think about the surface that a cheese is aged on rather than its flavor, texture, melting ability, cheesemaker story, animal treatment etc. For most consumers, this part of the cheesemaking equation is well down the list of things they would ever ask about. Yet, some name-controlled cheeses have a specific requirement that cheese, to be called by the protected name, must be aged on wood. Indeed, a cheese like Comte — required to be aged on wood due to their PDO — which by law have some of the most sustainable practices in the world (must be made by local co-ops, limit of cow/hectare etc.) would be hurt while the largest, most automated, least special cheese corporations would benefit.

Most makers of traditional-style cheeses believe wood creates a beneficial environment for cheese. After all, what is cheese but a great achievement of the microbe community? To be sure, not all microbes are beneficial or created equal, but a greater appreciation and understanding of this would benefit us all, both to create better – and safer – foods but also to release us from the fear of food that is part of the American social fabric.

Over the last 30-40 years cheesemakers here in the states have been trying to use the best practices of traditional cheesemakers to give smaller scale production a taste/quality advantage over the larger (now almost completely automated) factories that dominate the market. These folks have sunk their livelihoods on practices and recipes that rely — in part — on wood aging. It could be devastating for some, not just for replacement costs, but also for the lack of the special difference in flavor and quality that allows them to sell their products at a price that — theoretically — allows them to survive as small players in an agribusiness world.

We are all upset and angry at this ruling. However, let’s be careful about what we say to the press (including public social media posts) right now. We need a coherent strategy to fight this. Let’s re-group and come out focused and strong with an idea of how we can win, stressing the safety of cheese made with traditional methods. Talk to ACS folks, your fellow guild members, other cheese workers, and people who buy cheese for sure… but we will need a concrete plan of action to change the policies of a bureaucracy like the FDA. Remember too — though this is a hard thing to remember when one’s life work is being threatened — that from the FDA’s perspective, they are trying to protect lives of US citizens. Any argument to them that does not take into account that point of view is doomed, even in a case like this where we feel the decision is clearly wrong.

Hopefully we can come out of the ACS conference with a plan of action that enlists everyone in this fight.

Please read Jeanne’s piece below:

Game Changer: FDA Rules No Wooden Boards in Cheese Aging

A sense of disbelief and distress is quickly rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community, as the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week announced it will not permit American cheesemakers to age cheese on wooden boards.

Recently, the FDA inspected several New York state cheesemakers and cited them for using wooden surfaces to age their cheeses. The New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets’ Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services, which (like most every state in the U.S., including Wisconsin), has allowed this practice, reached out to FDA for clarification on the issue. A response was provided by Monica Metz, Branch Chief of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s (CFSAN) Dairy and Egg Branch.

In the response, Metz stated that the use of wood for cheese ripening or aging is considered an unsanitary practice by FDA, and a violation of FDA’s current Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations. Here’s an excerpt:

“Microbial pathogens can be controlled if food facilities engage in good manufacturing practice. Proper cleaning and sanitation of equipment and facilities are absolutely necessary to ensure that pathogens do not find niches to reside and proliferate. Adequate cleaning and sanitation procedures are particularly important in facilities where persistent strains of pathogenic microorganisms like Listeria monocytogenes could be found. 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 so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable, and shall be properly maintained.” 21 CFR 110.40(a). Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized. The porous structure of wood enables it to absorb and retain bacteria, therefore bacteria generally colonize not only the surface but also the inside layers of wood. The shelves or boards used for aging make direct contact with finished products; hence they could be a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms in the finished products.”

The most interesting part of the FDA’s statement it that it does not consider this to be a new policy, but rather an enforcement of an existing policy. And worse yet, FDA has reiterated that it does not intend to change this policy.

In an email to industry professionals, Rob Ralyea, Senior Extension Associate in the Department of Food Science and the Pilot Plant Manager at Cornell University in New York, says: “According to the FDA this is merely proper enforcement of the policy that was already in place. While the FDA has had jurisdiction in all food plants, it deferred cheese inspections almost exclusively to the states. This has all obviously changed under FSMA.”

Ah, FSMA. For those of you not in the know, the Food Safety Modernization Act is the most sweeping reform of American food safety laws in generations. It was signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011 and aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it.

While most cheesemakers have, perhaps, begrudgingly accepted most of what has been coming down the FSMA pike, including the requirement of HACCP plans and increased federal regulations and inspections, no one expected this giant regulation behemoth to virtually put a stop to innovation in the American artisanal cheese movement.

Many of the most awarded and well-respected American artisan cheeses are currently aged on wooden boards. American Cheese Society triple Best in Show winner Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin is cured on wooden boards. Likewise for award-winners Cabot Clothbound in Vermont, current U.S. Champion cheese Marieke Feonegreek, and 2013 Best in Show Runner-Up Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar.

Wisconsin cheesemaker Chris Roelli says the FDA’s “clarified” stance on using wooden boards is a “potentially devastating development” for American cheesemakers. He and his family have spent the past eight years re-building Roelli Cheese into a next-generation American artisanal cheese factory. Just last year, he built what most would consider to be a state-of-the-art aging facility into the hillside behind his cheese plant. And Roelli, like hundreds of American artisanal cheesemaekrs, has developed his cheese recipes specifically to be aged on wooden boards.

“The very pillar that we built our niche business on is the ability to age our cheese on wood planks, an art that has been practiced in Europe for thousands of years,” Roelli says. Not allowing American cheesemakers to use this practice puts them “at a global disadvantage because the flavor produced by aging on wood can not be duplicated. This is a major game changer for the dairy industry in Wisconsin, and many other states.”

As if this weren’t all bad enough, the FDA has also “clarified” – I’m really beginning to dislike that word – that in accordance with FSMA, a cheesemaker importing cheese to the United States is subject to the same rules and inspection procedures as American cheesemakers.

Therefore, Cornell University’s Ralyea says, “It stands to reason that if an importer is using wood boards, the FDA would keep these cheeses from reaching our borders until the cheese maker is in compliance. The European Union authorizes and allows the use of wood boards. Further, the great majority of cheeses imported to this country are in fact aged on wooden boards and some are required to be aged on wood by their standard of identity (Comte, Beaufort and Reblochon, to name a few). Therefore, it will be interesting to see how these specific cheeses will be dealt with when it comes to importation into the United States.”

Ralyea continues: “While most everyone agrees that Listeria is a major concern to the dairy industry, it appears that some food safety agencies interpret the science to show that wood boards can be maintained in a sanitary fashion to allow for their use for cheese aging, while others (e.g., the US FDA) believe that a general ban of any wooden materials in food processing facilities is the better approach to assure food safety. At this point, it seems highly unlikely that any new research data or interpretations will change the FDA policies in place.”

In fact, many research papers do in fact conclude that wooden boards are safe. In 2013, the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research published a paper on the subject, concluding: “Considering the beneficial effects of wood boards on cheese ripening and rind formation, the use of wood boards does not seem to present any danger of contamination by pathogenic bacteria as long as a thorough cleaning procedure is followed.” You can read the whole report on pages 8-9 by clicking on this link.

Interesting side note: Health Canada does not currently have any regulations prohibiting aging and ripening cheese on wood, so apparently if we want to eat most American or European artisan cheeses, we’ll need to drive across the border to do so.

So what’s next? The American Cheese Society has mobilized its Regulatory & Academic Committee to learn more about this issue, and to ensure its members’ interests are represented. The ACS promises to keep us apprised of developments. In the meantime, if you are a cheesemaker, and your operation is inspected and cited for the use of wooden surfaces, please contact the ACS office (720-328-2788 or info@cheesesociety.org).

Willie Nelson and cheese

I don’t think of cheese and country music as an obvious link; one rarely hears a country song about dairy farming and/or cheesemaking even as “cowboys” are a staple. I do not have the breadth of knowledge with that genre that I do with punk, but I would bet – if we include references to Reagan Cheese – that there are more punk songs about cheese, than country ones. There are certainly more hip hop songs about “Cheddar”.

So, I didn’t expect my profession to overlap with the crowd too much at the Greek Theater last week when we went to go see Willie Nelson. Because of the people two rows in front of us taking up a lot of space, the two seats in front of us were not taken until the awesome opening band Shovels and Rope* had already started. What did the folks do first? Take out their Cheese Plus picnic of Challerhocker, Sofia,** and a blue and a brie that I could not identify from my angle. I almost started a cheese conversation with them but they had annoyed the people sitting next to us who we had already bonded with so I left it alone. Hey, it’s the first Saturday night I had off in months.

Later, it was time to go to the bathroom and who was in line with me? A dude in a Willow Maid hat! I asked him if he worked for Rumiano and he said no but that he had grown up with Rumianos. I would have gotten more information but it was my turn to pee and a urinal line can turn from surly to violent in a moment’s notice. ***

Let me add – for the sake of the truth — that the most common food I saw at the evening’s show was the nasty pump cheese nachos being sold to very stoned concert-goers.

All this leads me to ask, where are the country music cheese songs? Clearly, there is overlap and interest. I suppose twice a day milkings do not fit in with the outlaw genre, since there’s not a lot of time in a dairy farmer’s day to drink whisky, fight, or run from the law. But, there’s plenty of pathos in low commodity milk prices, mastitis, and, say, bad starter culture ruining a whole batch of cheese. C’mon Nashville, get with it.

Willie Nelson was just as awesome as expected, btw.

*Shovels and Rope = awesome:

**Could have been Lake’s Edge, but I don’t think Cheese Plus has that cheese. It definitely wasn’t Humboldt Fog unless the folks cut off the rinds.

*** Pretty sure there is a Bukowski poem about that…

Cheese songs and cheese name bans

1. There was a good interview with me about cheesemongering here. They somehow found an out-take photo from my book cover photo shoot by the awesome Myleen Hollero.

2. I love the little Comte man. But everytime I see this image:
DSC00394

I start singing this song, substituting “Comte” for “Police”.

It matters to me what Joe Strummer would have thought and I don’t think he would have approved.

3. The worst thing about that is that – except for the chorus my Comte song makes no sense. Why would the cops be chasing the Comte man? It is not like the internally coherent, “Buffalo Taleggio/Dreadlocked bison/Refrigerate on arrival/Refrigerate for survival” version of the Bob Marley classic I sing whenever we get Quadrello di Bufala in.

4. As for the current controversy regarding the EU wanting to reclaim cheese names, these three articles sum things up well:

The Guardian, The American Cheese Society and Lincoln Broadbanks from “The Better Cheddar”

But I would add that the people hurt most by this would be the largest US cheese companies. Most small-scale producers figured out long ago that naming your cheese after the European was a fool’s game (with some exceptions like Mozzarella. Cheddar is especially a joke in this case because they way that Cheddar is made in the US was invented in the US.). If Kraft comes out in favor of small producer issues — like making sure raw milk cheese can stay legal at 60 days aged — I would feel a lot more strongly on this issue.

5. Let’s just look at a cheese rind now:

DSC00366

167,000lbs of cheese a day is no joke

Hi Everyone. I was up in Oregon on vacation with the family so I have not been around the internet lately. I had a great cheese trip planned — visiting Briar Rose Creamery on the first day of the year that they were getting goat milk — but snow prevented me from leaving the coast. Instead, I went to visit Tillamook which, though a lot less fun, was probably more useful for the book I am writing.

Look! Factory Cheddar:
DSC00552

167,000lbs of cheese a day is no joke. We sell about 4000-5000lbs of Tilly a year. At most cheese facilities we carry, buying that much cheese a year would get me a private tour. Here, I was up in the viewing section with the consumers ;):
DSC00553

It is worth noting that the two national brands of Cheddar that are thought of as “better quality” amongst consumers — Tillamook and Cabot — are both co-ops.

Look! I’m a Tillamook farmer!
DSC00579

I am not, however, a Blue Heron Donkey.
DSC00585

I visited this cheese company a couple of blocks from the Tilly factory. Causing me to laugh out loud — since i had just bought a lb of fresh curds from the Tilly factory — they were carrying Henning’s cheese curds all the way from Wisconsin! (I mean, they are better, but still…) I didn’t buy any cheese there but I bought some good chocolate truffles.

The rest of the vacation was spent vacationing. See:
DSC00597

The year in cheese pictures #1

This year’s batch is just hitting stores now. This is from the batch of Jasper Hill Winnimere that took first place at ACS in 2013. Heck, I voted for it.
DSC00126

The year in cheese pictures #2

The cheese world remembers:

Untitled

DSC00103

The Year in cheese pictures #5

Tunworth! Neal’s Yard-imported Camembert-style from the Hampshire Cheese Co…. first time I’ve seen it in the US and it’s pretty darn awesome!

Untitled