The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

FDA Does The Hokey-Pokey On Banning Artisan Cheese

You Throw Your Cheese Ban In, You Throw Your Cheese Ban Out

If you need further proof that the FDA – the so-called “Food and Drug Administration” – is totally out of touch with reality, to say nothing of sanity, look to the latest tempest-in-a-teapot caused by their idiotic and ill-informed attempt to ban the manufacturing of certain artisan cheeses.

Without going into a lot of detail, the crux of the issue involved the use of wooden boards for aging cheeses. After centuries of producing cheese using this technique, the Stupid Idea Fairy came along and whomped the FDA decision makers with her wand, making them issue an edict that said:

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.”

Okay, let me get a handle on this. The FDA grants GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status to every chemical additive and preservative that comes down the pike because the “scientists” and “experts” hired by food processing companies say it's okay to lace our food with potentially carcinogenic substances. But when science – and centuries of experience – says that using wood to age cheese is a safe and common practice, the FDA gets their panties in a wad and bans it.

I'm sure the folks at Kraft were dancing a big happy dance. “Oh, boy, oh, boy! Our hand picked government stooges just handed us the entire cheese manufacturing business on a polystyrene cheese board. No more pesky artisan cheesemakers to cut into our profits. Oh, boy, oh, boy!”

But their celebration was short-lived, as was the FDA's moronic ban. In the first place, the agency did not present the issue for discussion and comment as it usually does in these cases. Nope. They just cited the Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law by President Obama in January of 2011 and issued their little fiat sine die. That arbitrary action hurled the gauntlet into the faces of the artisan cheese industry worldwide, because not only were American cheesemakers being affected, but traditional European artisans would likely have been subject to the ban as well. And the petitions started flying as the online world came alive in protest. Cheesemakers and cheese lovers from Azusa to Zanzibar started flooding the blogosphere and the Twitterverse with outrage. They overloaded the phone lines and e-mail boxes at the FDA and even demanded the White House take action on the matter.

Not surprisingly, it took exactly one day for the looney-tunes in charge to back away from their ill-advised effort. In fact, they backed away so fast and so far as to have denied ever issuing the original statement in the first place:

The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA requirement in effect that addresses this issue. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.

In the interest of public health, the FDA’s current regulations state that utensils and other surfaces that contact food must be “adequately cleanable” and properly maintained. Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings. FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.

The FDA will engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving.”

Ah-ha! NOW they're going to “engage with the artisanal cheese-making community.” Yes, after having their asses handed to them, I imagine they would. When Jonathan Swift and John Kennedy Toole wrote about confederacies of dunces, they must have had the FDA in mind.

The upside of this whole debacle is that people are finding their voices and making them heard. The days of blindly trusting government agencies to safeguard our best interests are waning. People are finally figuring out that politicians and bureaucrats exist solely to make more politicians and bureaucrats who feed and grow upon the largesse of lobbyists and special interest groups. Unless the “little people” put their faces in the faces of these Brobdingnagian plutocrats, they have no faces, and until their whispers become roars, they have no voices. “Pink slime” got attention and the attention got results. Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 got attention and the attention got results. Azodicarbonamide got attention and the attention got results. But people have to be aware and they have to be informed and they have to act in their own self-interest because the days of the government acting in their interest are gone, if they ever existed at all.

In the meantime, artisan cheese producers need to keep on their toes. The FDA will not take this humiliation lightly and will likely start looking for back doors and shortcuts to achieve their purposes. Something or somebody got them riled up in the first place and, while they may have backed away on this issue for the time being, I doubt they've backed down.

One thing's for sure: the next time the FDA regulators get together for a group photograph, the photographer had better refrain from chirping, “Say CHEESE!”

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