Bad news, cheese lovers: The delicious snack's future is uncertain after a recent FDA decision. The FDA clarified last week that wooden racks, used by many cheesemakers to age their product, "cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized." That means cheesemakers who have been using such racks for decades may not technically be allowed to sell their cheese, though the FDA did say last night that a compromise is possible. The executive director of the American Cheese Society tells the San Francisco Chronicle that 65% of its 1,500 members, ranging from the smallest artisan cheesemakers to the largest factory outfits, use wood to age their cheese. And half of imported cheese is made the same way, she notes to the New York Times. "We're talking about a crushing blow to the artisan cheese industry," says one cheesemaker.
The wood's porous surface, unlike plastic or metal, prevents mold as it absorbs humidity. And, explains one fourth-generation cheesemaker whose family has been aging its Sonoma Jack on wooden racks for 83 years, "It's what gives our cheese its flavor." But starting in 2012, a cheesemaker in New York was cited multiple times after listeria was found on her wooden boards, which led state regulators to ask the FDA for a clarification on wood boards months ago. (Slate notes that listeria shouldn't be an issue if the boards are "well-maintained.") It's a confusing issue—particularly because, as another California cheesemaker points out, the FDA has been inspecting his facility each year since 2011, and no inspector has ever mentioned his wood racks. Yesterday, after much backlash from both cheesemakers and consumers, the FDA said it "has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves," Forbes reports. The agency says it will work with artisan cheesemakers to determine whether wooden racks can be used safely for certain types of cheese. (Better get this $100 grilled cheese sandwich while you still can.)