Dick Groves
Editor, Cheese Reporter

 

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Artisan Cheese Community Certainly Has FDA’s Attention

It was a pretty impressive sight at last week’s annual American Cheese Society conference in Sacramento, CA: Mike Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the US Food and Drug Administration, speaking at the annual ACS business meeting.

Taylor wasn’t alone. Accompanying him to Sacramento to meet with the ACS were several other officials with FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. One FDA official who was not present at the ACS conference: Monica Metz, author of the infamous FDA memo about the use of wooden shelves for ripening cheese (as detailed in our lead story back on June 13th which can be accessed by scanning the QR Code on this page).

Nor was Taylor’s presentation at the ACS business meeting a “one-and-done” deal. A day earlier, Taylor and the others from FDA had met privately with the ACS board and staff to discuss some key issues affecting the artisan cheese community, including the aforementioned controversy surrounding the use of wooden shelves for ripening cheese.

Indeed, Taylor’s appearance at the ACS conference was one of the most “hyped” meeting appearances in recent memory. As recently as July 10, the ACS had noted that a “representative” from FDA would be providing important updates for artisan cheese makers on the use of wood for cheese aging and other key issues impacting the industry.

A few days later, the ACS sent out an update noting that FDA’s Mike Taylor specifically would be addressing the July 30th ACS business meeting, and that Taylor and other FDA representatives would meet with ACS prior to the business meeting briefing to discuss issues facing the industry, in particular potential threats to traditional cheesemaking methods.

Taylor is, to put it mildly, a pretty important official at FDA. He was named deputy commissioner for foods at FDA in January of 2010. He is the first individual to hold the position, which was created along with a new Office of Foods in August of 2009. Prior to accepting that position, Taylor had been, among other things, head of the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the US Department of Agriculture.

All of this is a pretty impressive showing by FDA, an agency that previously had garnered considerable attention from the artisan cheese community but which didn’t seem to pay all that much attention to that same community.

FDA, obviously, regulates both the artisan cheese industry as well as the cheese industry as a whole, but has tended, historically, to pay more attention to the commodity end of the business, rather than the artisan end.

There are a couple of examples to illustrate this point. FDA has been involved with standards of identity for the cheese industry since the 1940s, but what might be regarded as the most important of these standards, the one for Cheddar cheese, applies to a segment of the industry that produces around 3.2 billion pounds of cheese annually.

Also, FDA’s main efforts these days are focused on implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law back in January of 2011. FDA will be publishing final rules for several key parts of the FSMA in the next couple of years, and those final rules will apply to the largest cheese (as well as dairy and other food) companies first, with effective dates for smaller companies following in a year or two, or even longer.

That said, in recent years, FDA has been spending quite a bit of time and energy taking a closer look at the artisan end of the cheese industry. For example, back in April at the International Cheese Technology Expo in Milwaukee, WI, FDA’s John Sheehan mentioned the 2010 results of an agency cheese assignment.

According to those results, 124 cheese manufacturers were inspected, 30 of which (24 percent) were found to have Listeria monocytogenes in their environments. Of those 124 firms, 41 were “artisanal” cheese manufacturers; eight of those artisanal firms (22 percent) were found to have L. monocytogenes in their environments.

Obviously, FDA is looking at some issues both from the perspective of the cheese industry as a whole as well as the artisan cheese community specifically.

During his talk at the ACS conference, Taylor repeated used words like “collaboration,” “communication” and “cooperation.” This is certainly good news for the artisan cheese community, but it’s also good news for FDA.

Why is that? Well, FDA learned a very valuable lesson a couple of months ago, when an agency memo suggested that the use of wooden shelves for ripening cheese was a violation of agency policy. After that memo went public, all heck broke loose, with the agency being roundly criticized not only by the cheese industry but also by a number of lawmakers (who happen to control FDA’s budget).

Suffice it to say, FDA will be more careful in the future when it comes to regulating, or trying to regulate, the artisan industry.

Frankly, it’s kind of too bad Monica Metz wasn’t one of the FDA representatives who attended the ACS conference. She probably deserves an award for bringing her agency and the artisan cheese community closer together.

The artisan cheese community has known for a number of years that it can ignore FDA at its own peril. Now, thanks largely to Metz’s infamous wooden shelves memo, FDA knows, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it can ignore the artisan cheese community at its own peril.

And thanks to this fiasco, both the artisan cheese community and the FDA will be better off in the long run. DG


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