June 11 2014

Lovers of Stinky Cheese Beat Back Regulators

Julie Gunlock

Earlier this week, cheese lovers went into full panic mode when the FDA announced plans to crack down on artisanal cheese makers for using the traditional practice of ripening cheese on wooden shelves.

According to the processed cheese lovers at the agency, using wood does not conform to regulations, 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.” Since, according to the FDA, wood’s porous structure inhibits proper cleaning and sanitation, the cheese boards could be a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms in the finished products.

Facing immediate and massive blowback from cheese industry groups, cheese-lovers, as well as a threat to secede by Wisconsin, the FDA appears to be backing down. In a new statement, the FDA said:

The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA requirement in effect that addresses this issue. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.

Greg McNeal at Forbes makes a good point about this whole dustup, saying:

This is also a lesson for people in other regulated industries. 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…”

People should learn one more lessons from FDA’s latest regulatory move: The government’s too darn big!

Just consider a few questions this whole mess has brought to light for many observers of the FDA (and other regulatory agencies): How bored are FDA officials that they’re literally making up threats to human health? Why the agency's sudden lurch toward cheese makers? Why this sudden interest in the cheese industry? Why attack a process that has been used steadily and safely for thousands of years? Why suddenly treat cheese eating like risky behavior? Why casually make policy statements that you're going to destroy an American industry only to, days later, respond defensively that "oops, we didn't really mean it."?

More importantly, why do these bureaucrats believe that people are so fragile that they can’t decide for themselves whether the cheese they are about to consume is good for them or safe to eat. After all, stinky cheese eaters are a tough crowd. It never fails to amaze me when I watch my more adventurous friends unwrap a hunk of cheese that reeks of smelly socks just pulled of a rotting corpse and heartily exclaim, cheese knife in hand, “Lets do this thing!”

Yes, FDA, let us do this thing. Just leave us (and our stinky cheese) alone. 

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