One of the tests used by Salem, MA, authorities back in the late 1600s to determine if a suspicious person was a witch was to repeatedly dunk the individual under water until he or she confessed. Not surprisingly, many of those “tested” in this way were convicted at the Salem Witch Trials for being a witch, and could then be executed. 


Something like that is going on with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s ongoing campaign against small cheese producers—the one that’s been going on for the last ten years and is now supposedly in recess as the FDA said in a statement last week that it “will engage with the artisanal cheesemaking community, state officials and others to learn more about current practices and discuss the safety of aging certain types of cheeses on wooden shelving, as well as to invite stakeholders to share any data or evidence they have gathered related to safety and the use of wood surfaces.”


I can virtually guarantee that the FDA’s challenge to cheese makers—prove to us that what you are doing is safe—will be virtually impossible for the cheese makers to accomplish. If cheese makers somehow do pull it off and convince the FDA to accept wood cheese boards, then there will be another similar issue over the threat of pathogens that will cause the FDA to continue after small artisanal cheese makers. Here is why: 


The supposed safety problem isn’t over wood boards, it is over the FDA’s approach to the pathogen listeria monocytogenes (L monocytogenes). The FDA has a zero-tolerance approach to L monocytogenes—or, at least, L monocytogenes that crops up at small cheese producers. Because L monocytogenes is so prevalent in our environment, trying to get rid of every last cell in an artisanal cheese facility, which depends on the interaction of beneficial bacteria, can be nearly impossible. Moreover, the agency fails to provide any guidance to producers about what needs to be done to rectify the situation, and when a producer can’t come up with a solution, the FDA keeps it shut down.  


The supposed problems with the New York producer at the center of the wood-board issue of last week is much the same scenario that was used to shutter the award-winning Estrella Creamery in Washington, and the highly popular Morningland Dairy in Missouri, both in cases that originated in 2010. These were thriving, growing examples of small cheese producers, capitalizing on the growing popularity of artisanal cheese, destroyed by the FDA over the presence of L monocytogenes


For the last two years, it’s been the same M.O. at Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese in upstate New York—a proud dairy making raw-milk cheese, being hammered nearly into oblivion. 


The confusion of Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese co-owner, Nancy Taber Richards, trying to satisfy the FDA, is much the same as for those other cheese makers. She told the NY Times: “It was kind of like trying to hit a moving target in the dark. I never knew explicitly what they wanted done.” 


Eventually, the FDA would write New York agriculture officials that this case suggested a problem with Finger Lakes Farmstead’s wood boards, and that was what triggered all the media handwringing trying to read the FDA’s mind. 


Now, what do all these cases have in common, besides bringing the full wrath of the FDA down on honest hard-working farmers? 


Here’s a hint: Ask how many people were sickened from the wonderful cheeses produced at any of these farms (Estrella, Morningland Dairy, Finger Lakes Farmstead). That’s right. Zero. 


Wait, you might say, the FDA can’t take any chances. This is L monocytogenes, after all. As the state prosecutor in the Morningland Dairy case that unfolded in a Missouri court in early 2011 said, “This cheese can kill.” (I describe the Morningland case in detail in my book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights.)


But the reality is that the FDA doesn’t have to take a zero-tolerance approach to the presence of L monocytogenes. That is because L monocytogenes isn’t as threatening in small quantities as other pathogens, like E.coli O157:H7. 


The FDA could take the same approach as the European Union or Canada. While the presence of a single cell of L monocytogenes is enough to shutter a facility in the U.S., the European Union and Canada allow small amounts of L monocytogenes (up to 100 cells), based on considerable evidence that small amounts of the pathogen don’t make people sick. 


The FDA’s excessively stringent approach has been the subject of debate in the U.S., and a number of scientists have taken the agency to task for its zero-tolerance policy. Back in 2003, four scientists did two studies of L monocytogenes in foods. In one of the studies, “The investigators found L monocytogenes in 1.82% of more than 31,000 food samples analyzed, but only 21 samples contained more than 100 colony-forming units (CFU) per gram (approximately equivalent to 100 organisms per gram),” according to a report. What that says is that of about 600 samples found to contain L monocytogenes, only a little over 3% had the potentially dangerous number of pathogen cells. That also suggests that 97% of the FDA findings of L monocytogenes–often resulting in farm and cheese producer shutdowns based on the zero-tolerance policy–are unwarranted.   

The report concluded: “It is clear that the most effective efforts to reduce the risk of listeriosis in RTE (ready-to-eat) foods will involve targeting the food servings that are heavily contaminated, even though the fraction of those servings is very small.” In other words, the zero-tolerance approach, where inspectors seek the fairly common presence of L monocytogenes, may be less safe than searching out the very few high-concentration pockets of listeria.


Why doesn’t the FDA take the same prudent approach to L monocytogenes as the European Union and Canada? You could argue that the FDA just wants to be super prudent. After all, what do the Europeans know about making cheese safely? 


Or, you could argue that the FDA doesn’t want to let go of its unrealistic, and itself unsafe, approach to listeria m, because it would lose much of the leverage it has to arbitrarily shut down small artisanal cheese makers. Of course, we all know the FDA would never do something as mean-spirited, arbitrary, and threatening to the public health as mis-using scientific knowledge. No, not our warm and good-hearted professionals at the FDA. But the fact of the matter is that for many years now, the FDA has refused the recommendation of prominent scientists to change its rules on L monocytogenes for ready-to-eat foods like dairy products. 


Indeed, the FDA freely admits in its own warnings to cheese makers that L monocytogenes is inherently difficult to completely eliminate. “L monocytogenes is a pathogenic bacterium that is widespread in the environment,” it said in its initial 2012 warning letter to Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese. The FDA makes that statement in other warnings to cheese makers. 


The business about wood boards is just an excuse, a distraction, from the issue at hand, which is the FDA’s determination to harass and even shutter as many artisanal cheese makers as it can. 

Bigger picture, the FDA’s rigidity on L monocytogenes is emblematic of our societal problem with bacteria. The FDA’s demand that artisanal cheese producers, which depend on friendly bacteria for the taste and nutritional benefits of their product, essentially create a sterile environment, isn’t unlike what’s happened to the rest of our society with a push for sterilization of food and the environment, all the way to the ever-present hand sanitizers. Unfortunately for small cheese producers, the only entities that can successfully produce cheese in a sterile environment are the corporate producers, whose cheese fewer and fewer people want.