Tag Archives: comte
Wow. Talk about a groundswell. This is the kind of issue that scares the cheese world because, while crucial to us, the surface a cheese is aged on might be seen as too esoteric or boring to draw public attention. Clearly this has not been the case here.
I feel like it may be important here to rehash the chronology since, suddenly, my blog is being read outside the insular world of the cheese-obsessed. First, who uses wood to age cheese? The answer is more cheesemakers than you probably think.
According the the American Cheese Society, almost 75% of cheese producers in the three largest American producer states age at least some of their cheese on wood. Wisconsin alone ages almost 30 million pounds of cheese on wood. Over 60% of cheese makers surveyed use wood boards for aging. In Europe, 1 billion lbs. of cheese a year are aged on wood boards including some of the most popular in the US like Parmigiano Reggiano and Comte.*
So, why did this become an issue? Recently the FDA cited three New York cheesemakers for using wooden boards to age cheese. Since the advent of the FSMA,** the FDA has been more active in regulatory activities relating to food production. The NY State Department of Agriculture asked the FDA for clarification since they approve of the use of wood under the right circumstances– like all other states I know of that produce large amounts of cheese. (see Gianaclis Caldwell’s great piece on this here)
An official at the FDA replied that since “Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized” their use for cheese ripening or aging is considered an unsanitary practice by FDA, and a violation of FDA’s current Current Good Manufacturing Practice regulations. Furthermore they consider this an existing policy, not a new one that would need public comment and review. (See this article by Greg McNeal for an opinion on whether this should be considered a change of policy)
Let us pause for a second and ask, how many food borne pathogen issues have there been where the culprit was wooden aging boards? The answer: none. Indeed, food safety-wise, especially when one excludes cheese that would never be aged on wood, cheese has a very good track record for food safety.
The opposition to the prohibition of wooden boards does not mean that cheesemakers are against Good Manufacturing Practices or regulation. Indeed, as evidence of the seriousness with which it is taken, I am including the entire ACS press release below. ***
Due to the hard work of affected cheesemakers and the American Cheese Society, the FDA released a new statement today:
“ 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.”
*according to “Wooden Tools: Biodiversity Reservoirs in Cheesemaking” (a chapter in Microbes and Cheese edited by Catherine Donnelly of the University of Vermont) 500,000 tons = 1 billion lbs, right?
** Here is a good background piece on the FSMA, which, btw, came out of Bush administration anti-terrorism policies.
***AMERICAN CHEESE SOCIETY
POSITION STATEMENT ON THE SAFETY OF AGING CHEESE ON WOOD Issued in Response to the Recent Food & Drug Administration (FDA) Statement on the Use of Wooden Shelves for Cheese Aging
Released June 10, 2014
For centuries, cheesemakers have been creating delicious, nutritious, unique cheeses aged on wood. Today’s cheesemakers—large and small, domestic and international—continue to use this material for production due to its inherent safety, unique contribution to the aging and flavor-development process, and track record of safety as part of overall plant hygiene and good manufacturing practices. No foodborne illness outbreak has been found to be caused by the use of wood as an aging surface.
The American Cheese Society (ACS) strongly encourages FDA to revise its interpretation of the Code of Federal Regulation (21 CFR 110.40(a)) to continue to permit properly maintained, cleaned, and sanitized wood as an aging surface in cheesemaking as has been, and is currently, enforced by state and federal regulators and inspectors.
It is ACS’s position that:
• Safety is paramount in cheesemaking.
• Cheeses aged on wood have a long track record of safety, and have long been produced meeting FDA standards.
• Wood can be safely used for cheese aging when construction is sound and in good condition, and all surfaces are properly cleaned and maintained using sanitation steps that assure the destruction of pathogens, including but not limited to:
o All surfaces are free of defects; o Any wood preservatives used are safe and acceptable for direct food contact; o Inspection and cleaning procedures are followed that specify:
•Frequency of inspection and testing
•Frequency of cleaning and sanitizing
•Methods used that adequately clean boards which might include:
• Sanitizing with acceptable products
• Inoculation to create and maintain positive biofilm
• Raising the core temperature of the wood above pasteurization temperatures
• Ongoing monitoring and verification of the effectiveness of all procedures per the Hazard Analysis and Risk-based Preventive Controls (HARPC) provision of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)
• Corrective actions to address any issues
• Discarding of wood that is deteriorated and/or in poor repair Furthermore, ACS believes:
• Traditional methods of cheesemaking can and do meet food safety standards.
• U.S. consumers should have access to a wide variety of domestic and imported cheeses, including those safely aged on wood.
• State and federal regulators and inspectors must work collaboratively with cheesemakers to understand how traditional methods and materials can comply with current food safety standards.
• Many of the finest and most renowned cheeses from around the world are at risk of disappearing from the U.S. market if regulatory and enforcement changes under FSMA eliminate traditional materials and methods.
• FDA should provide timely notification, hold proper listening sessions and comment periods, review all available scientific data, and include consideration of industry stakeholders before modifying long- standing interpretation or implementation of its regulations which impact American businesses. ####
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org).
I had a death-centric Sunday yesterday, that’s for sure.
First, we did the AIDS Walk out in Golden Gate Park. Our little 4-person team raised almost $3000, and, since there were about 20,000 people out there a lot of money was raised. Overall, more than $2,500,000 was raised yesterday and – even subtracting the pay of some overpaid CEO or ED – it’s a wonderful community event.
It’s funny, I haven’t been for a decade or so and it is a much more celebratory, rather than funereal, event these days in year 25. People had reminders of their dead – names written on their shirts, stuffed animals with name tags, the Quilt etc. – but the atmosphere was very much like a booze-free early morning party. It’s hard to feel sad when Cheer SF, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and the Stanford Marching Band is cheering you on.
We walked to the Ocean and caught a slow N bus (construction at Duboce and Church!) back home so I could make the memorial to Daphne Zepos at the Cheese School.
Daphne was a big deal in the cheese world. She was diagnosed three months ago with late stage cancer and passed away (at age 52) before many of us in the cheese world realized that things were that serious and that close. My facebook page and many personal conversations revolved around her death for the last week or so. We are a small community and you know it’s a big deal when one of us gets an NY Times Obit.
I held off from writing anything about her for a couple of reasons. The first is a common feeling… did I know her well enough to claim the space of mourning? That can often be a trap. Being a person who works in a very public place, and having lived within the same 8 block radius for nearly 25 years, many people who have passed through my life have died. It’s not usually my first realization, but I have come to learn over the years that even one nice memory is a gift to those left behind.
The other reason I hesitated was that so many others of you have written so eloquently about what Daphne meant to you. Emi, Anthea, Kirstin… and so many others. My relationship with Daphne was not as profound as the way she mentored many of you. I wanted to leave space for your words.
Daphne and I started working in cheese at around the same time so we had a different relationship. In fact, some reading may remember that we actually had a difficult relationship at the beginning. I won’t go into that except to say that cheese was too important for both of us to not forge a working relationship and a friendship. Over the years I realized that she was an extremely generous person, someone it was a pleasure to be around, someone I always looked forward to seeing at cheese events. Someone who was an extremely important person in our little world.
If you can’t deal with strong, opinionated women, the specialty cheese world is not the place for you. Daphne was always a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes a disorganized force who couldn’t quite seem to arrive on time, but always a force. Some of you who didn’t know her might think that sounds disrespectful, but it was part of her charm. There was always so much to do and so much great cheese. Even though she died at 52, no one can say she didn’t make the most of her time here on the planet. Most profoundly, she respected back and forth and honest discussion in a way that many people can’t handle. While I will agree with her completely on her L’amuse Gouda being the best anywhere, and I rank her Essex St. Comte as right up their with the best, she took it in stride when I told her I preferred my Parmigiano Reggiano to the one she imported. I mean, we argued about it — and I think we both had fun while we staked out our positions — but she understood my opinion.
She never took that kind of thing personally. I think she loved the fact that there was a community in the USA where she could have those kinds of debates. Her tireless work played a part in the fact that that community exists and thrives today.
I actually haven’t come to grips with the fact that she won’t be at the next ACS conference, at the next important cheese tasting, at the Cheese School the next time I am there… I think her loss will be felt even more when I arrive in one of those spaces and she never shows up. I’ll miss the way I wouldn’t see her coming and then suddenly she would appear next to me behind the cheese counter. We don’t allow many people to do that but we would never have thought of saying no to her, (not that she ever asked.) 😉
Goodbye Daphne. You will be missed tremendously. You touched the lives of many, many people. What more could someone really ask for than that?
I love Comte. Why not re-start my Purely Arbitrary Cheese Obsession of the Week entries with a cheese I love so much?
There are lots of good Comtes. We almost always use a 4-6 month Comte as our basic Alpine cheese and we often have a more aged one as well. Right now our 15 month (from the Fort Des Rousses which you can see lots pictures of if you scroll down to “Day 6”) is stellar. Nutty, grassy, milky-sweet…. I rarely use anything else for cooking anymore.
The basic difference between Comte (sometimes called Gruyere de Comte)and Swiss Gruyere besides the border line is that (at least from what I saw) the Swiss is brined and the Comte is hand-salted. From our vantage point 10,000 miles or so away from both producers, the Swiss is usually more pungent and onion-y, the Comte more nutty and sweet.
The other difference is that – due to the name-control regulations – Comte preserves the land where it is made by legally recognizing the importance of pasture. Though the milk of over 100,000 cows is used to make Comte, the average herd size is only 35 and each cow must have almost 2.5 acres for grazing. The local cooperatives that make the cheese are also limited in the amount they can produce.
I even used it as a submission for an article that an environmental organization was going to do on eco-friendly cheese. I thought it was perfect because it’s the best example I can think of to show how a cheese can be mass produced (at any given time there are about 50,000 wheels of Comte aging in Fort Des Rousses, which is a large, but not the only, aging cave for the cheese) but still be hand-made with the same quality of a small-production cheese and with explicit regulations regarding the protection of the environment and animal welfare. Amusingly, it wasn’t used because they chose to use a more esoteric, pricey,harder-to-find Alpine cheese example instead. Stay (upper-)classy, big environmental groups!
(And hey, don’t forget to “like” my new facebook page before the “Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge” one gets phased out.)