Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) is among those asking the Food and Drug Administration to clarify its guidelines on the use of wooden boards to age artisanal cheeses. He says cheese makers have been using wooden boards or panels to age their cheeses for centuries, and that changing the rules would put American producers at a disadvantage.
"You see, many, if not most, artisanal cheese makers use wooden shelves or panels to age their product, because the wood wicks away moisture from the cheese and can even add flavor, much like a wine or beer aged in a wooden barrel or casket would do," Schumer said.
Part of the concern is that the wood the cheese is aged on doesn't provide a sanitary surface, though Schumer says studies have been done that show the process producers use to keep the wood safe works.
The senator says cheese makers in Canada and Europe are allowed to use wooden boards, but he says the FDA's current interpretation of the rule is unclear and has cheese makers wondering if they need to replace the wooden boards with other materials, like plastic or metal.
"The fact is the FDA has not made it clear whether they find the use of wooden shelves safe for aging cheeses," Schumer explained. "Recent comments by the FDA attempting to clarify their position have not made it any clearer. Without clarity from the FDA, our cheese makers are rightly worried that this FDA interpretation could have far-reaching implications."
Schumer says replacing the wooden boards can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and have the potential to impact the taste of the final product.
One producer, Muranda Cheese in Seneca County, says it would cost the business roughly $40,000 to retrofit just one of its three aging rooms.
According to the USDA, New York state produced 754 million pounds of cheese in 2012. There are 75 cheese makers in upstate New York, including 11 in central New York and nine in the North Country.