In recent communication to the New York regulators, the Food and Drug Administration noted that wood shelves and boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized, and as such, do not conform to a particular regulation regarding plant equipment and utensils.
The federal agency also noted that "proper cleaning and sanitation of equipment and facilities are absolutely necessary to ensure that pathogens do not find niches to reside and proliferate."
In a statement issued Tuesday, however, the FDA seemed to backtrack on the stance. It noted that it hasn't taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wood shelves. And while it said it has expressed concern about whether wood can be adequately cleaned, it added that it is "always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese."
The FDA said it will engage with the artisanal cheesemaking community to determine whether certain types of cheese can be safely made by aging them on wood shelves.
When asked what that process would entail, FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher said in an email that the agency "can't speculate on immediate next steps."
The note to New York regulators had sparked concern in the cheese world because much of the cheese that's imported in the U.S. is aged on wood. Robert Ralyea, a senior extension associate at Cornell University's Department of Food Science, said aging cheese on wood is even a part of the standard of identity for some cheeses, such as Comte cheese.
Ralyea said he had made the inquiry about wood boards to New York state regulators on behalf of Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese, a local cheesemaker. State regulators then requested clarity from the FDA on the matter. The FDA's communication was posted late last week, sparking the concerns in the cheese world.
"A sense of disbelief and distress is rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community," wrote the blog Cheese Underground.
The American Cheese Society, a trade association based in Denver, also posted an alert to its members, assuring them it was mobilizing to learn more about the issue. Nora Weiser, executive director for the society, said the aging of cheese on wood boards has never been an issue in the past. She said state inspectors have generally just worked with cheesemakers to ensure the wood is being properly cleaned.
"We can't guess what they'll do. Their goal is safety, and that's our goal as well," Weiser said. But she added that the American Cheese Society wanted to "preserve this as a method of aging cheese."
Weiser wasn't immediately available for a comment on the FDA's latest statement.
Nancy Richards, owner of Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese, said she was shut down seven months ago after listeria was found in her plant, which uses wood to age cheese. She wasn't certain of the specific reason, but said she thinks the FDA has never liked wood for aging cheese.
"Do I like being the poster child for the wood board issue? No, not really," she said.
She added that she believes that wood boards that are well kept can be adequately cleaned.