Wood is hard to cleanIn June the Internet exploded around the issue of the United States Food and Drug Administration’s position on the use of wooden shelves for aging of cheeses. Headlines like “FDA to Save Us From Scourge of Wood-Aged Artisanal Cheese” were everywhere.
My podcasting (foodsafetytalk.com) and food safety blogging (barfblog.com) buddies and I tried to work out the science, or lack thereof, behind the scenes. All we had was a poorly written text document explaining the FDA’s position, accompanied by three scientific articles with obscure titles like “Inhibition of Listeria monocytogenes by resident biofilms present on wooden shelves used for cheese ripening.” The text document did not appear to have been edited or vetted through the highest levels of the agency, and I did not necessarily agree with FDA’s stated interpretation of the findings from the articles.
Sometimes the truth can be complicated. It’s true that wooden surfaces in food processing plants can be difficult to clean. But wooden shelves in cheese aging rooms are often colonized by loads of “good bacteria.” You wouldn’t necessarily want to deep clean them, as those good bacteria are helping keep out the bad bacteria. On the third hand, if wooden shelving were to become colonized by some of the bad bacteria (like Listeria) this could be a real problem for a cheese plant, and might require removal and replacement of the colonized shelving. The FDA was certainly correct in that wooden shelving does not conform to “current good manufacturing practice” requirements. These rules 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.” But I believed, and the FDA later confirmed, that there was a lack of evidence as to the role wooden shelving might play in Listeria contamination in cheese.
The FDA eventually clarified their position, stating: “To be clear, we have not and are not prohibiting or banning the long-standing practice of using wood shelving in artisanal cheese.” And while FDA inspections have found Listeria monocytogenes in more than 20 percent of inspections of artisanal cheesemakers, FDA noted there are no data that directly associates this contamination with the use of wood shelving.
Don Schaffner, Extension Specialist in Food Science, Rutgers University
Aiming for a germ-free world is misguided
At 5 Spoke Creamery, wood shelves are a key ingredient for creating great
raw milk cheeses. The aging process and the environment the cheeses are in
imparts and affects flavor. Wood offers a breathable, natural place
for cheese to age. Using plastic shelves for otherwise great cheese is like
assembling a world class jazz quartet and then using a drum machine instead
of the great Buddy Rich pounding on those drums. I want everything around me
and in me to be real, so I don’t wear polyester and don’t eat fast food!
For our cheese we use cypress wood, which is a tight-grained, low resin hardwood; pine and spruce are too porous. The more porous woods are harder to clean and more likely to harbor bacteria. Even with cypress boards, we rotate them and let them sit on the barn roof to bake in the sun, killing any possibility of bacteria.
While the FDA may have good intensions, their understanding of all the factors needed to create a safe, healthy environment for food are lacking.
When I have a food related question I contact the top professors at Cornell and other universities. It’s a lengthy back and forth process. Sadly, the FDA wants short, quick answers without understanding all the factors.
I strongly disagree with the FDA’s enforcement of a misguided law. The world’s greatest cheeses have been aged on wood boards for centuries, long before the FDA existed. I don’t think we should be cavalier about food handling and safety. At the same time, as a society our auto-immune responses have been weakened by trying to create a germ-free world.
Alan Glustoff, owner of 5 Spoke Creamery, Goshen