FDA riles cheese industry

Federal regulators are scrutinizing the use of wooden racks to age fine cheeses, questioning the cleanliness of an age-old practice used by many artisan cheesemakers in Sonoma County.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration seemed to back off its stance this week following a backlash from foodies and cheesemakers across the United States. Local cheesemakers said they plan no changes to their operations while the FDA examines the issue.

"At this point there doesn't seem to be any imminent change," said Liam Callahan, owner and cheesemaker at Bellwether Farms near Petaluma.

The FDA ignited a firestorm when it interpreted a decades-old regulation requiring that cheesemaking equipment be designed and constructed of material that is "adequately cleanable." A letter written by a senior FDA manager made it appear that wood, which has been used for centuries to help age cheese, was no longer sanitary enough.

"Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized," said the letter by Monica Metz, the FDA's chief official responsible for food safety issues involving cheese.

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