The Aged Cheese Stink

Posted: Jun 22, 2014 12:01 AM

I’m no cheese expert. But I know what I like. And I prefer “interesting” cheese to the mostly mass-produced product I see on supermarket shelves.

Why? A failure of capitalism?


Blame the FDA for today’s mediocrity in cheese. The milk product industry has been heavily regulated, subsidized, and managed since FDR’s time, at least. And it’s mostly gotten worse. Government, like cheese, ages to “perfection.”

By which I mean, when it comes to government, perfectly foolish.

The most famous “government cheese” problem (the government buying and storing huge quantities of the stuff to raise consumer prices and “therefore” stabilize milk production) is only the tip of a very huge hunk of the stinky stuff. Enforced pasteurization is at the heart of America’s milk and cheese industry (unlike in many places in Europe), and the federal government’s ongoing war on bacteria (which our bodies require, to at least some extent) has led to today’s perhaps-safe but mostly bland and uninteresting cheeses.

And then there were the FDA’s rulings that rocked the cheese industry a few weeks ago:

The FDA recently conducted a handful of routine inspections in New York and cited cheesemakers for using wooden planks to age their products. News of these citations quickly spread through the cheesemaking industry and many business owners are concerned about their livelihood.

The FDA swore up and down that cheesemakers must not use wooden boards in cheese production:

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.

Problem? Yes, according to the Cheese Notes blog:

The wood-aging adds flavors that cheesemakers say can’t be replicated by any other means. Chris Roelli is a fourth generation cheesemaker in Shullsburg Wisconsin and says his family has been wood aging cheese for nearly a hundred years. He says the practice is safe as long as cheesemakers properly clean their wooden planks. The FDA however, argues that bacteria and pathogens can grow in the fibers of the wood and cause health problems.

Well, since cheese is itself a bacteriological process, one has to wonder: could the FDA’s rationale border on a certain amount of dunderheaded obliviousness?

But like most stories about government, the tale quickly spun out of control. From get-go in the stink, the FDA insisted it had long clung to this rule. Nothing new; move along. The fact that cheesemakers had been breaking it and getting away with it for too long, didn’t immediately faze the feds.

But the artisanal cheese production community went up in arms. These aren’t the biggest producers, but a more specialized batch of cheesemakers, smaller outfits with closer ties to traditional cheese production. Their outcry went viral. All of a sudden, the FDA began blowing a different blend of smoke. The agency denied having a new policy, and, furthermore, denied a new enforcement push against wooden boards — all contrary to its earlier rumblings.

Not too surprisingly, the FDA’s denials sported a Clintonian ring, suggesting only a temporary backing off:

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.

The FDA is merely being cautious. It is still heavily invested in what it sees as a potential health hazard — or, at least, a threat to the agency’s own self-conceived rationale. Ancient practice doesn’t seem safe enough, and the cheese whizzes at the FDA are intent on having the last word.

Yet, as common sense might suggest, it is apparent that there’s no real dirty cheese problem in the U.S.

If anything, our cheese is too clean. And not tasty enough.

Forbes drew a lesson from the affair:

When government officials make pronouncements that don’t seem grounded in law or policy, and threaten your livelihood with an enforcement action, you must organize and fight back. While specialized industries may think that nobody cares, the fight over aged cheese proves that people’s voices can be heard. . . .

But the lesson is larger. Government bureaucracies can ruin a business, without help of Congress, just on their own. These regulatory agencies can make a plausible case for their destructive behavior, but that plausibility usually goes no further than that. The case for their regulations — bureaucrat-made law — are usually as shaky as a cheese soufflé.

There is a reason why businesses form organizations to lobby Congress: to have some say in the regulations that affect not merely their bottom lines, but their very existence. When we hear about “special interests,” it’s worth remembering that much of what special interests do — or at least start out to do — is self-defense.

The big dairy companies have their lobbies, and they are probably fine with cracking down on wooden boards. I haven’t checked it (hey: this is a project for your kids), but I wouldn’t be surprised if the conglomerates that make up Big Cheese hadn’t long ago given up wooden boards in their cheese aging process. They probably make do with plastic or stainless steel or some cheap, easy-to-clean (or easy-to-dispose-of) mesh.

I wouldn’t be shocked if, at some point, it was a Big Cheese manufacturer who whispered into the ear of an FDA bureaucrat somewhere that “wooden boards are dangerous, you know,” and got this whole thing started. Traditionally, regulations (like subsidies) tend to favor the big at the expense of the little businesses. There’s a reason for that. And it happens over and over, especially in agriculture.

The modern regulatory state looks a lot like the mercantilist states that Adam Smith undermined. Smith fought for the idea of low government involvement, and against government-enforced monopolies, regulations, etc.

For now, though, enough consumers — having developed a taste for good cheese — have sided with artisan producers to place a check on an unreasonable FDA crackdown. But the fight is clearly not over.

Apparently, the price of cheese is eternal vigilance.