Food & Drink

The FDA cheese war is basically over, and cheese has won

After its statement condemning aging on wooden boards as unsanitary, the FDA had cheese-makers quaking -- and in an uproar about a move that would be potentially devastating to the American cheese community. However, upon further consideration (and after experiencing the anger of millions of cheese-loving Americans, who signed petitions and took to their respective arenas to advocate against the ruling), they have cut the cheese statement down.

The FDA has basically retracted its stance on wood-aging, meaning that artisanal cheeses have effectively been saved -- for the time being. Not only would the ban have hurt those who make cheese in America, but it would've been hugely detrimental to American cheese imports from Europe and elsewhere (and would've meant that you'd probably be eating almost exclusively Kraft Singles). The collective uproar from Americans stopped the FDA in its tracks, and they are now seeing the light of reason... reason that's only based on thousands of years of cheese-making tradition.

"I think it’s a step in the right direction. To have a federal agency move that fast it means they heard the community pretty well," says fourth-generation Wisconsin cheese-maker Chris Roelli.

gouda cheese
Rachel Freeman

To understand the scope of the effects, it's important to understand what aging on wood boards does to cheese. Wood-aging is an extremely important process to artisans, and its usefulness is threefold, according to Roelli:

"Wood is a living thing, and cheese is a living thing, and when you combine them it creates a microbiological environment for the cheese. It imparts a flavor, and creates an environment for a healthy rind to grow on the cheese. Basically, it’s a catalyst for beneficial bacteria to grow on the outside of that cheese to essentially prevent the bad mold and allow the good mold to grow. Thirdly is the humidity factor -- the boards are acclimated to a certain humidity. The wood holds its own humidity and slows out the drying of the cheese."

In short, wood makes cheese taste good. As of now, there is no other process that allows for the same benefits to the cheese. And for now, cheese-makers will continue to use it.... but just in case this conflict rears its head again, you might want to start filling your basement with cheese wheels and wood planks. You could make a fortune on the bootleg cheddar market.

Adam Lapetina is a food/drink staff writer at Thrillist, and thinks this was a gouda move on the FDA's part. Read his musings at @adamlapetina.