A Cheesy Story
Yesterday morning, a link blew by on my Facebook feed asserting that the FDA was cracking down on the use of wooden boards to age cheese.
The opening paragraph:
A sense of disbelief and distress is quickly rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community, as the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week announced it will not permit American cheesemakers to age cheese on wooden boards.
Having paid some small scant attention to how cheese is made, I thought to myself, “that can’t be correct, that make it impossible to make… too many different types of cheese!”
So I read the article.
I noticed immediately that there was no link to the FDA web site, and no copy of the letter from the FDA that is alluded to in the article. I contacted the writer of the post, and she very kindly forwarded me a letter she received from the American Cheese Society, which she used to make the blog post.
But the letter from the American Cheese Society doesn’t link to the FDA letter, and there’s no copy of this FDA letter on the ACS web site, although there’s a statement from the ACS about it.
So I went to the New York State Department of Agriculture’s web site, and I didn’t find anything in the Press Release section regarding this letter, either.
Hm. Weirder and weirder.
Remarkably, all of these blogs point back at the original Cheese Underground post, and while some of them have lots of keen info about artisan cheese making, not a single one of them points to a full copy of the letter in question, although this link gets referred to on Vox.
Now, I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t look like a full letter to me. That looks, suspiciously, like perhaps a smaller portion of a larger document, at best. The fact that it’s released not by the FDA, but by the ACS, makes me very leery of trusting this at all, when the document is clearly not complete. More on that down below.
For the record, I emailed the FDA spokeswoman referred to in the original article, but she did not respond. If the rate at which this story rolled through the blogosphere is any guide, her email box may have spontaneously exploded, so that’s not necessarily a surprise.
Slate has updated their post with the following:
Update, June 10, 2014: The FDA has released a statement that kind of contradicts Metz’s assertion that wooden boards don’t conform to FDA standards and kind of reiterates it. Metz’s letter read, “The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP [Current Good Manufacturing Practice] 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.’”
The FDA’s new statement reads,
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.
… but they still don’t link to the original letter, or a full copy of this new amended statement by the FDA, which I can’t find anywhere on the Internet, although Forbes reports on it as well.
Now, it’s certainly possible that a FDA spokesperson sent a letter that over-reached.
It’s also possible that the FDA spokesperson sent a letter that addressed, hypothetically, a specific case that has been resolved, and part of that letter was clipped out and forwarded to a trade group that then sent out an email blast that resulted in a blogger writing a post that was picked up by a bunch of other bloggers that really didn’t do a single goddamn bit of real fact-checking at all.
Or they did, but they didn’t cite their sources properly, or their editors clipped that out as uninteresting.
Any way I look at this… Jesus.
Journalism is dead.