Knock on Wood

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What does Italy’s incomparable Parmigiano Reggiano have in common with Wisconsin’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve, England’s Colston-Bassett Stilton and French Comté?  All of them, indisputably, are among the world’s finest cheeses, and all are matured on wooden shelves. Because of that age-old practice, common to countless other cheeses, these beauties are currently in the cross-hairs of the FDA.

Mysteriously, the FDA recently began citing New York cheese makers who aged their cheese on wood, saying that it was a violation of the agency’s code of good practices. That’s because, the agency says, cheese-plant materials have to be “adequately cleanable,” and wood, being porous, doesn’t meet that standard. The New York state inspector had allowed the practice.

Do you recall the debate about wooden versus plastic cutting boards? Research showed that wood actually had an inhibiting effect on bacterial growth and that plastic boards with knife grooves harbored more bacteria.

Cheese makers like wooden shelves in their aging rooms for several reasons. It helps regulate humidity, for one thing. “When an aging room or a cheese is too wet, the wood will accept it,” says Andy Hatch, owner and cheese maker at Uplands Cheese Company in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, producers of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a three-time winner of the American Cheese Society’s Best of Show.

Wood also transmits beneficial microflora that help ripen the cheese, says Hatch (pictured above). “These are food-safe bacteria, similar to ones that ripen salami,” says Hatch. “We swab our boards regularly to determine that they are free of pathogens.”

Coincidentally, the state dairy inspector had arrived for a visit shortly before I called Hatch for a comment. The inspector has been monitoring this dairy state’s dairies for 23 years. “She thinks it’s ridiculous,” Hatch said, summarizing his inspector’s thoughts on the FDA matter. “She understands (wood’s) importance to cheese aging and thinks it’s manageable.”

The FDA bases its concerns on a 2010 study showing that Listeria monocytogenes, a pathogen, can survive on sanitized wood shelves used for cheese ripening. At least one other recent study has shown that wood inhibits Listeria. (E-mail me if you would like the citations.) My unscientific reasoning suggests that if wood aging of cheeses was harmful, Europe would have figured that out long ago.

“We have tens of thousands of dollars of wood here, and for a company our size, that’s not a small number,” says Hatch. Replacing wood with stainless steel shelving would be “cost-prohibitive,” he says.

“It’s a concern that needs to be addressed,” says Marc Druart, a cheese technologist and director of research and development for Emmi Roth USA, which makes award-winning Gruyère-style cheese aged on wooden shelves. “But you can’t just one day change your mind and say, ‘We’re not going to allow this anymore.’”  The FDA has indicated that more stringent enforcement would apply to imported cheeses as well.

Personally, I’m a lot more wary of factory-farmed chicken than I am of aged cheeses matured on wooden shelves. If you would like to express concern about the FDA’s actions, please write your Congressional representatives.

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