A Cheesy Story


Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.

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38 Responses

  1. Damon says:

    It’s a case of shoddy work all around Patrick. Thanks for digging into this. Daddy needs his cheese!Report

  2. zic says:

    I won’t defend sloppy journalism — anything you get in your inbox, no matter who it’s from, should be verified. But all to often, ‘good guy’ groups (in my experience, environmental groups) can send out distorted information that will be printed as gospel.

    But. The FDA and raw-milk have had a distinctly fraught relationship. And this happens at the policy level, sure. But the inspector level, even more. This, says the girl who grew up drinking raw milk (and selling it to people who came to our farm to purchase it), and who now buys cheese on the underground cheese market.

    Back in the early 1900’s, we grew uncomfortable with the wee microbes. We went to great lengths to kill many, and only recognized a few as necessary. Far too few. And the process of cheese, more than any other, is an FDA inspector’s night mare of microbes running amok. Often, it’s not policy (which may be state, may be local) that causes problems for anyone working trying to market raw-milk products, cheese makers in particular; it’s one inspector being overzealous. This happens, it happens a lot, and I’ve seen it turn the most liberal dreamer into a small-gov zealot. At the same time, if you’ve an impaired immune system, some nasty cheese can kill you. One of the biggest issues is pasteurization; the equipment is very expensive. My friends with a half-dozen dairy goats would never, ever earn the cost of that equipment back. And honestly, pasteurized milk, for some cheeses, does not work.

    So not to defend the lack of reporting here; but this is an old and ongoing struggle between the FDA and small-scale dairy producers, it’s been going on for a long time, and most of the flash points have been triggered not by FDA policy but by an individual inspector’s reaction to that policy.


    • James Hanley in reply to zic says:

      I’ve seen it turn the most liberal dreamer into a small-gov zealot

      That’s a rather significant insight, no?Report

      • zic in reply to James Hanley says:

        I cannot speak for all liberals, but: I, at least, would welcome revamping and rolling back regulation if it were done in the name of competent government.

        The ‘small government’ meme is a problem that shuts the conversation down, imo.

        Government can be good, it can be bad. It’s not the size that counts, it’s the competency.Report

      • morat20 in reply to James Hanley says:

        I’d happily trade an overhaul of the FDA’s regulations with, you know, funding the FDA enough to enforce whatever comes out the back end.

        Of course, living in Texas, I’ve become familiar with the ‘self-enforce’ side of regulation. (Pro-tip: Does not work very well. It appears many industries, even those dealing in things that literally explode, will not actually self-enforce anti-exploding regulations).

        My dad spent his entire work career complaining about OSHA. He also mentions that, when he began working, they used to clean their tools in benzene. Among a laundry list of “Really bad for your health” things they did in the 50s and 60s that OSHA stamped on because of, you know, cancer.

        I don’t deny that any governmental body can over-regulate. It’s pretty inevitable, so things have to be regularly re-examined. But equally I try to keep in mind the way it was before they got there as well.

        I got nothing on wooden cheese boards, though. Sounds like a dumb thing, but that doesn’t mean it is. I simply lack any relevant background to assess it, and I’ve seen dumb sounding rules turn out both ways.Report

      • Patrick in reply to James Hanley says:

        When it comes to artisan food, you don’t really need the FDA getting involved.

        The FDA should be there to prevent things like large salmonella outbreaks where a significant portion of the nation’s food supply is suspect because some base ingredient at some “large enough” farm supplied salmonella infected spinach to a dozen other food companies.

        Pretty sure a small, local food supplier can be run without FDA oversight, although there should be a clearly defined “not FDA regulated” stamp on it.Report

      • What @patrick said.

        There are four decent-to-good rationales for regulation:

        1. Widespread illness and health malady affects us all.

        2. People should not use/consume things that are harmful to their health.

        3. Without regulation, people don’t know what they’re getting or not getting.

        4. Without regulation, there will be a race to the bottom and all product will be dangerous.

        I am sympathetic to some of these to varying degrees. Patrick is talking about #1 as being a primary concern. Disclosure takes care of #3. The limited scale of artisan foods takes care of #4 and the parts of #1 I care about. The remaining thing is #2, which I am antsy about because it gets to the difficulty of defining “unsafe.”

        (This dynamic is also why I think holding food trucks to a different standard than restaurants makes sense, and why I am not enthusiastic about regulating the dinner-parties-for-money that pop up in Styles sections from time to time. Food trucks have limited scale, so #1 is less of an issue. B&M restaurants will prevent #4. Knowing the “eat at greater potential risk” mitigates #3.)Report

      • morat20 in reply to James Hanley says:

        I’m good with that, as long as we realize that inevitably someone will complain they hit 50 employees or X sales and triggered FDA oversight and all agree that, you know, lines actually have to be drawn so “I sold more cheese and now the MAN is on my back” or “I hired one more employee, and suddenly the FDA is all in my business JOB KILLING REGULATIONS” is just a BS argument at that point.Report

      • David Ryan in reply to James Hanley says:

        In my business the regulatory threshold is six. There is virtually no oversight if you’re only drowning customers six at a time. 7-49 is another regulatory category, and (IIRC) 50-149 yet another.

        As you can imagine, there is whining, complaining, and cheating at the boundaries of these regulatory thresholds. How could it be else wise?Report

      • morat20 in reply to James Hanley says:

        Of course there is.

        Honestly, my concern with regulation is first and foremost: Is it universal and fair? Does EVERYONE in that industry/job/business/whatever have to put up with it?

        (Brackets by size or market I don’t mind — I just want every shop or business doing the same job facing the same rules and the same oversight).

        Fair first — level playing field. Then comes “Is the regulation good?” (Which includes things like “Why was it enacted” because “It solved a problem that no longer happens is not a good reason to repeal a regulation, unless you can show some other factor BESIDES regulation got rid of the problem”)Report

      • Glyph in reply to James Hanley says:

        “There is virtually no oversight if you’re only drowning customers six at a time.”

        This may seem like a money-losing strategy, but we’ll make it up in volume.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to James Hanley says:


        so things have to be regularly re-examined

        This seems to be the area we have trouble in. It seems to me everyone is so eager to fashion shiny new regulations that we never think to take out the old ones & see if they could just use a little TLC & polish.Report

      • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

        to be fair, the EPA regs are Upgraded, so that looking at the past ones (full of loopholes) is less of an issue.

        I could really vote for a Republican who wanted a Cabinet Position for “Removing Excessive, Underutilized, and Just Plain Stupid Laws and Regulations”Report

      • morat20 in reply to James Hanley says:

        MRS: Possibly. I have no idea how regulatory structures work on the inside.

        My concerns are more..meta, for lack of a better term — and probably unique to leaving in a place like Texas, and that boils down to “Idiots keep trying to repeal regulations on the basis they solve a problem that doesn’t exist” when, of course, said problem stopped existing because laws got passed against it and regulators jumped up and down on it with both feet. (I realize that, yes, sometimes changing times will actually remove problems too and that indeed, there might exist regulations that fixed a past problem that would not reoccur if the regulation was removed. I object to that being a given, however).

        It’s like…railing against waste, fraud and abuse in government spending. One man’s waste is another man’s critical spending and a third man’s pork, and in terms of fraud and abuse the best thing you can do is hire auditors and give them nasty teeth, not make speeches from the Senate floor about the entire FDA or whatnot.

        I think Texas may occasionally put together committees designed entirely to wander through sections of the law and suggest those that can be safely removed (superseded or whatnot), I don’t see any reason why regulatory bodies can’t do the same. For all I know, they do.Report

  3. David Ryan says:

    Bravo Patrick for digging in on this!Report

  4. Road Scholar says:

    I’m curious… aside from tradition, how much difference does the wood actually make in the cheesemaking process. Is there some chemical or biologist interaction there? If so, could it be achieved by other means less bacteria-friendly? On the other hand, what kind of wood are we talking about? Hardwoods? Softwoods? Is porosity the reason you need it in the first place?

    There’s a lot here I don’t know before I can judge about who, if anyone, is being unreasonable.Report

    • David Ryan in reply to Road Scholar says:

      It looks better in the photos.Report

    • Wine aged in wooden barrels takes on some flavor so it’s reasonable to think cheese would too. But I don’t know for sure.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Road Scholar says:

      Yes, the wood adds to the flavor, and it is very tricky to fashion organic molecules to do the same.

      Also, this is CHEESE! Bacteria is part & parcel to the process, without, you don’t get no cheese. The trick is to limit the micro-organisms to the few you want. Often, the wood chosen for the boards to add flavor also has characteristics that inhibit unwanted bacterial/fungal growth, especially if kept in an environmentally controlled room.

      Of course, the boards can get too old, and need to be replaced on some sort of schedule. If the FDA was really worried about this, they should solicit opinions &/or research regarding how long a given board can last before it becomes bad for the cheese.

      (I grew up hanging out in cheese factories, because near Plymouth, WI, where I grew up, there is about 1 cheese factory every few miles – I miss that sometimes)Report

  5. Glyph says:


  6. James Hanley says:

    determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving.

    I understand the logic of the concern, but is there any evidence that the wood is actually causing consumer illness?Report

    • Patrick in reply to James Hanley says:

      The case in NY that kicked all this off was an incident of Listeria getting into cheese. It appears, from the FDA documents referenced, that the bacteria got into the wood.

      My guess? This whole thing is a case of the linked cheese company being told that they had to discard their shelves (because bacteria can live in the wood, and you can’t get it out with a surface cleaner), and the NY Dept of Ag asked for a clarification, and the FDA sent a big thing like they do which included the small excerpt that has been making the rounds, saying wood boards are unsanitary *if* they’ve been exposed to disease causing bacteria already.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Patrick says:

        The quoted letter from Metz doesn’t have any qualifiers or limitations or “if” statements; it just says straight-up “[w]ooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized”.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Patrick says:

        I think you missed my point, Jim.

        That’s clearly not the complete letter. It’s not on letterhead, it has no salutation, nothing. It’s not a scan of a document, it looks entirely like someone took some chunk of a larger thing, made a PDF out of it, and posted it on their web site.

        Why would anyone do that, other than to remove context from it?Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Patrick says:

        “Why would anyone do that, other than to remove context from it?”

        Just to be clear, so I understand: You are saying that people are lying about what Metz wrote in the letter?

        If so, why didn’t the later FDA statements point that out? Why did they bother to reply at all?


        And if your actual complaint is “why isn’t any of this linked online”, welp. Not everything is an online public statement which is made available to everyone. If it’s “shoddy journalism” to quote an official government communication, than anything before about 1994 should be considered shoddy.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Patrick says:

        “Just to be clear, so I understand,” he said right before he put the words he really wanted to argue in the other person’s mouth.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Patrick says:

        Just to be clear, so I understand: You are saying that people are lying about what Metz wrote in the letter?


        I’m saying that the way they are reporting the story implies quite a lot of additional information that isn’t available via the one linked source provided by the original blogger.

        It could be that they have access to additional information that they’re not citing.

        It could be that the information acquired by ACS, originally, was a partial document to begin with, and the reason for that isn’t necessarily nefarious.

        It could also be that they’re reporting the story they want to report on, instead of the story that is actually there. You should be able to grok that.

        If so, why didn’t the later FDA statements point that out? Why did they bother to reply at all?

        Well, for starters, the later FDA statements aren’t fucking linked, Jim, as I said in the original post, so for all we know, that’s exactly what they said, that Merz was misquoted or misunderstood.

        Not everything is an online public statement which is made available to everyone.

        Certainly. However, a regulatory agency that oversees the food industry in the United States must actually make public statements that are available to everyone. You know, so that everyone knows the regulations they’re supposed to be following?

        And if you had, in your hands, an original document from a government agency that actually was this boneheadedly stupid, wouldn’t you… you know… actually put that document up with your article in order to add credence to your story?

        If it’s “shoddy journalism” to quote an official government communication, than anything before about 1994 should be considered shoddy.

        Jim, I have here a list of communist sympathizers, right here in my hand, and you’re on it.Report

  7. Chris says:

    Man, two cheese posts in one day, and I can’t even eat friggin’ cheese ’cause I’m on a stupid low fat diet because of the stupid doctor! I think the FDA should ban cheese altogether (at least until the doctor tells me I can eat it)!Report

    • zic in reply to Chris says:

      I am very unhappy that any doctor would tell anyone to eat a low fat diet.

      A varied diet with healthy fats. Fat is essential to proper brain function. To proper digestion (like vegetable nutrients require some fat with them so that your body can absorb them).

      Small amounts of fat also create a feeling of satiation that better helps curb how much we eat.

      And when it comes to animal fats, the diet of the animal actually matters. Grass-fed cow milk is rich in omega-3 fats, corn fed not. Whole milk and butter from grass-fed cows is good for you, good for your heart.

      So unless there’s some other reason for a low fat diet (gallbladder problems, for instance) I adore @chris far too much to keep quiet about low-fat diet.Report

  8. Claire says:

    Hello Patrick – I believe this may be the “amended statement” that you were having difficulty locating: