MADISON (WKOW)-- When many think of the state of Wisconsin, cheese often comes to mind. The flavorful dairy product has a longstanding history in Wisconsin culture and accounts for billions of dollars in revenue every year. Many cheesemakers are concerned this longstanding heritage could be in jeopardy after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has cracked down on the use of wooden-aged cheese.
The FDA recently conducted a handful of routine inspections in New York and cited cheesemakers for using wooden planks to age their products. News of these citations quickly spread through the cheesemaking industry and many business owners are concerned about their livelihood.
"It's a game changer in the industry. Wooden boards are so important for so many flavors of cheese," Fromagination Artisanal Cheeses owner Ken Monteleone says. "Without this process many of our favorite cheeses would cease to exist."
Monteleone says more than 80% of the cheeses he sells are made using this process. The way it works is cheesemakers combine all of their ingredients and then place their cheese on wooden planks to age. The process helps the cheese to develop a variety of unique flavors and helps it develop a thick rind around the cheese.
"In Wisconsin we have over a hundred year tradition of making cheese and a lot of cheesemakers are following old world European traditions and making these artisan cheeses. This process goes back thousands of years in Europe," Monteleone says.
The wood-aging adds flavors that cheesemakers say can't be replicated by any other means. Chris Roelli is a fourth generation cheesemaker in Shullsburg Wisconsin and says his family has been wood aging cheese for nearly a hundred years. He says the practice is safe as long as cheesemakers properly clean their wooden planks. The FDA however, argues that bacteria and pathogens can grow in the fibers of the wood and cause health problems.
"That's a major, major, major game changer for the cheese industry. Over 85% of the cheese that I make in a year's time is aged on wood," Roelli says. "This is really concerning for us."
The FDA tells 27 News that this policy of not allowing wooden aged cheese is nothing new. Officials say the agency has had this policy for several decades. This official also says that imported cheeses are forced to follow this guideline as well. That means all imported cheeses from Europe are also subject to this regulation. However, cheese shops, restaurants and grocery stores have featured wood-aged European cheeses for decades. Several Wisconsin cheesemakers are wondering why now all of a sudden has the FDA decided to start cracking down on wooden-aged cheese?
"I think it's in the early stages of really re-addressing something that has been talked about for years. It will be interesting to see what the FDA outcome is on this," Monteleone says.
Several trade groups including the American Cheese Society have sent warnings out to their members about the recent crackdown on wood-aged cheese. Members say it will be one of the main topics of conversation during their annual conference in Sacramento later this month.
To read the alert that was sent out by the American Cheese Society, click here.
The FDA released this statement about wood-aged cheese:
"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."
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