Cheeseheads rejoice! FDA cutting the cheese rhetoric


By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — If the Obama administration seriously thought it could roll its Expanded Government machine over America’s Dairyland, it obviously has never encountered an angry Cheesehead.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration heard from many an irate Cheesehead after word surfaced the agency might just be thinking about banning the long-standing practice of cheese makers using wooden boards to age their products.

On Wednesday, the FDA cut the cheese rhetoric, and seemed to be backing off its position.

THE POWER OF CHEESE: The U.S. Food & Drug Administration appears to be backing off on its regulatory blustering about the long-held tradition of artisan cheese makers using wooden boards to age their products. Cheeseheads in Wisconsin and beyond sounded the alarm when an FDA official wrote to New York regulators that wood shelves and boards used in production lack adequate sanitation safeguards.

In a statement responding to concerns raised by Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection Secretary Ben Brancel, the FDA clarified that it does not now have a new policy “banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) requirement in effect that addresses this issue.”

“Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves,” the agency’s statement noted.

Gov. Scott Walker said he is pleased with the FDA’s response, and that the agency seems willing to “engage members of the cheese industry as they evaluate the use of wooden shelves.”

“I look forward to working with the FDA and Secretary Brancel to ensure the use of wood in the cheese-aging process is able to continue in Wisconsin and across the country,” the governor said in a statement Wednesday evening.

The controversy began after an FDA official noted in a message to New York regulators that wood shelves and boards lack adequate sanitation safeguards, and that they do not conform to regulations related to plant utensils and equipment.

“(P)roper cleaning and sanitation of equipment and facilities are absolutely necessary to ensure that pathogens do not find niches to reside and proliferate,” regulators stated in the communication.

The FDA’s follow-up statement maintained those concerns but noted that the agency is open to “evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.”

Wisconsin cheese makers believed the science was settled long ago.

A scientific review conducted by Bill Wendorff of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research and French researcher Bénédicte Coudé concluded that wooden boards could be safely used for cheese aging, provided thorough cleaning and heating procedures were followed.

Those procedures are in place in Wisconsin, according to Brancel.

The Food Safety division at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has a policy requiring department approval of industry procedures for maintaining cheese-aging boards in a sanitary condition.

“These procedures are there to ensure that ‘utensils and other surfaces that contact food must be adequately cleanable and properly maintained,’ as mentioned in the FDA statement,” the ag secretary wrote in a news release.“This includes wooden shelving used in an aging process that gives Wisconsin cheeses their distinct flavor and appeal.”

The state known worldwide as America’s Dairyland knows a thing or two about cheese and milk production — and standard-bearing safe production at that. You don’t lead the nation in cheese-making for more than a century without learning how to do it right.

The dairy industry contributes $26.5 billion per year to the state’s economy, and the brunt of that is in cheese — some 600 varieties, types and styles to be precise. Wisconsin last year produced 2.84 billion pounds of cheese, more than a quarter of all U.S. cheese production, according to the “2014 Dairy Data, A Review of Wisconsin’s Dairy Industry,” information obtained by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

Specialty cheese made up 611 million pounds of Wisconsin cheese production in 2012, a record year. Wisconsin now accounts for 45 percent of total specialty cheese production.

That’s a lot of cheese.

And that’s why talk of government interference has cheeseheads, well, cheesed off.

“This process is not only part of our state’s heritage, but contributes to the growing worldwide demand for quality Wisconsin cheeses, produced by highly skilled cheese makers,” Brancel said. Supplying this demand has a multi-million dollar impact on our dairy economy.”

But while the FDA says it’s open to discussions, nothing seems free from Big Government intervention in the current reign of regulation, an era during which the Obama administration has dramatically added to the nation’s labyrinthian list of codes, rules and restrictions on American business. Last year, a report by the conservative Heritage Foundation assessed the cost of Obama’s first-term regulations at $70 billion, and that was pre-Obamacare.

The FDA may be softening its position on wood-crafted and stored cheese, but it seems nothing has been settled.

When asked what the process of determination would entail, FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher in an email to the Associated Press said that the agency “can’t speculate on immediate next steps.”

But there was a sense of relief in Cheese Country on Wednesday, expressed in the Cheddarsphere.

Madison’s Jeanne Carpenter, creator of the Cheese Underground blogsite, opined that the FDA’s “back-stepping in both tone and message is welcome news for the hundreds of cheese makers across the country who have invested their life savings in making premium artisanal cheese and aging it on wooden boards.”

“I want to give a special shout-out to every consumer who wrote a letter, signed a petition, left a comment on a blog or Facebook page and generally made standing up for artisan food a main-stream American issue. In the end, everything is politics. Thank you for taking a stand. We will most certainly need you in the future,” Carpenter wrote.

Contact M.D. Kittle at